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Autopsies backed up as medical examiner’s office asks feds for help

“The caseload has increased drastically over the last year,” Maryland Chief Medical Examiner Victor Weedn said. (Andre Malok/NJ Advance Media via AP)

A growing backlog of bodies awaiting autopsies has forced the state of Maryland to seek federal help. 

As of Friday, 217 bodies are awaiting examinations by the state’s forensic pathologists. That number could exceed 300 in less than two weeks, according to state Chief Medical Examiner Victor Weedn. 

The backlog is growing daily. Weedn is requesting help from federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Teams. 

“Even though we’ve made a request for emergency service, that doesn’t mean they’ll say yes,” said Weedn. 

Weedn told the Postmortem Examiners Commission he would make the formal request Friday. 

The federal mortuary teams are comprised of pathologists and support staff. They parachute into areas hit by man-made or natural disasters. Teams went to New York and New Orleans following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. 

The Baltimore facility can store up to 50 bodies. Large storage trucks have been brought to store 21 more bodies. An auxiliary morgue was also set up to handle an overflow that shows no signs of abating. 

“We’ve certainly seen a large increase in our cases here,” said Weedn. 

The office has seen an 85% increase in the number of cases investigated between 2012 and calendar year 2020.  Weedn said the increases track with the national opioid crisis. 

A national shortage in forensic pathologists has only deepened the problem. 

In January, the office handled 627 people, a nearly 10 percent increase over the same time in 2021. The backlog grows by about 50 bodies per week, Weedn said. 

At one time the office was able to turn around 99% of cases in less than 24 hours. Today, it can take two weeks for an autopsy. The delay potentially lengthens investigations and keeps families waiting to bury their relatives. 

Of the cases currently awaiting an autopsy, three are homicide cases. 

The backlog began in mid-December.  By January 13, an initial 50 bodies waiting for autopsy doubled. 

“The caseload has increased drastically over the last year,” Weedn said, adding that the office hoped to complete 18 autopsies on Friday. 

The backlog could take months to clear without an increase in staffing, said Weedn. 

“We have asked for other resources for a reason,” he said. “The sooner they come, the better.”

The lack of staff has also threatens the accreditation of the agency because staffing has fallen below national standards. 

Deputy Health Secretary Dr. Jinleen Chan, a member of the postmortem board, said the Department of Health is working to free up 21 new positions. Some will be for additional pathologists while others are for support staff. 

“I will say that providing positions does not mean there are people in the positions yet to do the work,” said Chan. 

The office is down at least four forensic pathologists since Weedn took over as the chief medical examiner in 2021. Additionally, the chief of investigations left, along with staff within the IT department. 

Weedn said the office is already augmenting a short staff with per diem contract employees. 

“They come in and they do a lot of work,” he said. 

The per diem employees are doing the work of seven full-time employees, he said. “Maybe more than that now that we’re into the end of January,” said Weedn. 

The office is also recruiting additional help through fellowships, full-time employees and additional contract workers. Those extra workers are still weeks away at best. 

“Do we have enough? No,” said Weedn. “We’re still accumulating bodies.”