Morgues Across Country Struggle to Handle Growing Number of Fatal Overdoses; Opioids Blamed

By Victoria Kim 02/07/17

One Ohio county had to use refrigerated trucks and even a local funeral home for extra storage space.

Hospital worker pushing cart.

As more Americans succumb to opioid addiction, the surge in drug overdose deaths has exhausted public resources—all the way to the morgue.

Most recently, the New York Times spoke with Kenneth M. Betz, director of the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office in Ohio, about how the epidemic of heroin and painkiller addiction has affected his work. 

Last year, Montgomery County reached max capacity and had to use refrigerated trucks to store bodies for a week. This year, the coroner’s office said it relayed four bodies to a local funeral home for “temporary storage.” 

“We’re running at full capacity,” said Betz. “We’ve never experienced this volume of accidental drug overdoses in our history. We now call funeral homes immediately [to look for extra storage space].”

Judging by recent data, it seems Betz and his staff will have to get even more creative to handle the increasing work load. The number of drug overdose deaths in the first 33 days of 2017 (163 deaths) has already exceeded half of totals from the past two years. In 2015, the county recorded a total of 259 fatal overdoses; in the first nine months of 2016, there were 253 fatal overdoses.

“This increase from year to year—I’ve never seen anything like this,” Betz told the Times. “The drug problem we have is absolutely phenomenal.”

Ohio has one of the highest rates of fatal drug overdose in the United States—alongside West Virginia, New Hampshire, Kentucky, and Rhode Island. Ohio recorded 3,310 drug overdose deaths in 2015. 

Coroners all over the country—including parts of Connecticut and Florida—are also having trouble handling the influx of fatal overdoses. 

Georgia sank $4.5 million toward renovating the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s Medical Examiner’s Office in south DeKalb County. According to Atlanta’s WABE 90.1, construction began last fall—the end result will be a much larger morgue and office space for the medical examiner.

Dr. Jonathan Eisenstat, Georgia’s chief medical examiner, told WABE that they’re handling almost double the case load from just a few years ago, saying opioids—heroin, painkillers, and extremely potent synthetic opioids like fentanyl and carfentanil—are partly to blame.

In 2014, there were more than 1,200 drug overdose deaths in Georgia, according to the CDC.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr