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Fatal overdoses, staffing contributing to morgue capacity issues

King County Public Health Director Dr. Faisal Khan said many major metro areas across the country are dealing with a lack of space in morgue coolers.

KING COUNTY, Wash. — A comment at the most recent King County Board of Health Meeting has sparked a lot of controversy and discussion around the drug epidemic impacting western Washington.

"The medical examiner's office is now struggling with the issue of storing bodies because the fentanyl related death toll continues to climb," said King County Public Health Director Dr. Faisal Khan.

He said it was an indicator of how bad things got at the end of 2022 and how they will be in 2023. Dr. Khan said the Medical Examiner's (ME) office has finite space in the coolers they use and the space is being exceeded on a regular basis. He noted this is an issue across the country in many major metro areas.

KING 5 reached out to King County Public Health to talk about this issue. They sent us a statement, which said fatal overdoses aren't the only reason why they're running out of space. The statement read, in part:

We have options for temporary morgue surge capacity when our census count gets high, including storing decedents on autopsy gurneys and partnerships with funeral homes. We’re exploring longer-term options for adding more capacity."

Nicole Daugherty, the operations manager at the Snohomish County Medical Examiner's Office, provided some insight on other reasons why morgue capacity has become an issue for many counties in western Washington.

Daugherty says staffing has been issue.

"There's a national shortage of forensic pathologists, the doctors who perform autopsies," she said. " We typically have three, but in 2022, we lost two of ours. We just hired another and then we have one more coming in March."

That shortage, Daugherty said, means if they have 23 bodies in their morgue on a Monday, it's going to take at least until Tuesday for their office to process them. 

Morgue capacity is also impacted by a state law that requires ME's offices to keep bodies for 90 days.

"We are required by law to keep them for 90 days, do due diligence, check for next to kin. If you have indigent cases, they're going to sit in your morgue for 90 plus days and we've been having more and more of those," Daugherty said.

The impact of the pandemic is also still a factor in morgue capacity issues according to Daugherty.

"I kind of think the effects beyond COVID itself, people delaying medical care, increase alcohol usage, all sorts of stuff like that are causing more people to die their house."

When someone dies in their home, funeral homes prioritize picking up those bodies versus the ones in morgues, according to Daugherty. 

Overdose deaths in Snohomish County went from 254 in 2021 to 276 in 2022. A majority of that, Daugherty said, was from fentanyl. They're expecting that to get worse as well, compounding their space issue.

Finally, physical space is also a problem. Many morgues, especially their cooling areas where they keep the bodies, were built with certain capacity limits.

"It would more prudent to move to a new building with a larger capacity as opposed to tacking on here, but while we are here, we're looking for a more efficient racking system and utilizing partners that come available."

Daugherty says you can help morgues where you live by making arrangements ahead of time for after life care. That helps move bodies out of morgues faster and prevents you from having to handle business while you're grieving.

The statement from King County Public Health, referenced above, is in its entirety below.

If you or someone you know is suffering from addiction or substance abuse disorder, call the Crisis Connections Hotline at 1-866-789-1511 or visit warecoveryhelpline.org for more resources.

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