The surge in drug overdose deaths has created an unprecedented nationwide demand for autopsies and toxicology examinations, Brian Peterson, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, tells Stateline. Many medical examiners are working overtime and, in some places, they’re running out of refrigerated storage for bodies. When that happens, local officials typically borrow additional space at local funeral homes and hospitals, and in some cases, rent refrigerated trucks. “Virtually every medical examiner’s office and toxicology laboratory in the U.S. has felt the impact of the opioid tsunami,” Peterson said.
In Maryland, homicides and fatal car crashes also are on the rise, creating far bigger caseloads for medical examiners than recommended by the national association. The concern is that performing more than the recommended limit of 325 autopsies in a year, in addition to other duties such as testifying in court, could result in errors. Nationwide, the drug overdose epidemic is now claiming more lives than homicides and auto accidents combined, and there were more fatalities from drug overdoses in 2015 than AIDS-related deaths during that epidemic’s peak in the 1990s. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent count of drug overdose deaths was more than 52,000 in 2015, with at least 33,000 due to heroin, fentanyl, prescription painkillers and other opioids. The New York Times has estimated that overdose deaths were as high as 65,000 last year. That would be the largest one-year increase in history. Evidence from drug seizures and medical examiners’ reports suggests the death toll will be even higher this year.