Opioid Epidemic Taxing Death Investigators Like Never Before

The Hennepin County Medical Examiner is sounding an alarm. 

Dr. Andrew Baker says the opioid epidemic and a national shortage of medical examiners have created a perfect storm that is taxing death investigations in Minnesota and across the country like never before. There have been a lot of long days and nights at the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office recently. Baker said the office is running out of room for bodies because of the opioid epidemic. 

“We are doing scores more autopsies this year than we would have done last year or the year before that,” Baker said.

They’re also feeling the strain at the Hennepin County Medical Center Toxicology Laboratory, where experts run tests to help determine cause of death.  Dr. Fred Apple is HCMC’s medical director of Clinical Laboratories.

 “We’re seeing a two- or three-fold increase in workload; that puts a lot of stress on our employees,” Apple said.

Apple helped conduct research just published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences that looked at heroin-related deaths in Hennepin County from 2004 to 2015. 

“And we identified a three-fold increase in deaths, from about 10 a year up through 2005 through 2010. And between 2010 and 2015 it went up to about 40 to 50 a year,” Apple said.

That’s a 300 percent increase over a decade. 

Baker said it’s only getting worse since 2015. “Our numbers have continued to go up,” he said.

Apple thinks the increase is a sign of more and cheaper heroin on the streets.

“And it’s not just always a pure heroin death,” Apple said. “This is cut with these other compounds. The biggest one we’ve talked about lately — it’s got a lot of press — is this carfentanil.”

Carfentanil showed up in Minnesota in early 2017. Last month, 22-year-old Davonn McGlonn was found dead in a portable toilet in Brooklyn Park with a needle in his arm. He is one of 11 carfentanil deaths Baker has confirmed so far.

Baker said the synthetic opioid is 10,000 times more potent than morphine. It’s so dangerous he won’t let his investigators handle drug-related evidence at crime scenes anymore. 

“Carfentanil is so potent that the warnings we’ve gotten from the Drug Enforcement Administration, you know, for emergency medical providers, is you really don’t want to be exposed to it even in a passive capacity.'”

The medical examiner’s homicide property room is full of prescription medications. Heroin and synthetic drugs like fentanyl and carfentanil. Baker said it’s evidence the opioid epidemic has created a perfect storm that’s taxing death investigation in the United States like never before.

He said the workload is crushing. Each overdose death requires a crime scene investigation, an autopsy and toxicological testing — which has turned into a budget buster.

In 2014 the Medical Examiner’s Office spent more than $251,000 on lab work. In 2017, they estimate it’ll cost more than $391,000. That’s a 43 percent increase from 2016.

The Medical Examiner studies all the evidence and determines how a person died, which is more important than ever because prosecutors use that information to charge drug dealers with murder or manslaughter.     

On top of all that, there is a shortage of forensic pathologists nationwide. Baker is one of about 500. He estimates there should be two or three times that many.

This past legislative session, lawmakers approved almost $2.7 million to help build a state of the art regional medical examiner’s facility in Minnetonka, right next to the Hennepin County Home School. The new location is in the southwest metro, just west of Interstate 494 off County Road 6, and provides easier access for more people than does the downtown Minneapolis location.

The new office will serve Hennepin, Dakota and Scott counties, with room for other partner counties and agencies in the future. The total cost of the facility is $57 million, and it’s expected to be move-in ready by mid-2020.

Besides having more room, baker says the new ME’s office will help him compete to retain and recruit the experts he needs to stay ahead of the opioid epidemic.  

“A brand new facility is going to be one of the key things that’s going to make somebody say, ‘you know, I’d really like to move to the Twin cities to be a forensic pathologist.”           

Baker said his office is preparing for the future because everyone believes the opioid epidemic will likely get worse before it gets better.  

“You know, the days of this being an inner-city problem of people that were once junkies who had track marks all over their arms and were found dead in a heroin den, those aren’t the people who are dying of opioid overdoses,” Baker said. “There are people that I know, there are people that you know, they could be people that anybody watching this is related to. It can happen to anybody, and you may not even see it coming. If this is a title wave of an epidemic that’s moving from the east coast across the country, it’s entirely possible we haven’t seen the worst of it yet.”

Source: KSTP 5

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