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Dr. David Fowler’s staff is scrambling to keep up with the surging stream of corpses flowing through the doors.

In his 15 years as Maryland’s chief medical examiner, Fowler has seen natural disasters, train crashes and mass shootings. Heroin- and cocaine-related homicides have plagued this city for decades. But he says he’s never seen anything that compares to the opioid epidemic’s spiraling death toll. As fentanyl, carfentanil and other deadly synthetic opioids seep into the illicit drug supply, it’s only getting worse.

The recent surge in drug overdose deaths has created an unprecedented nationwide demand for autopsies and toxicology examinations, said Brian Peterson, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, which accredits the forensic pathologists who perform death investigations.

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, he said. “Virtually every medical examiner’s office and toxicology laboratory in the U.S. has felt the impact of the opioid tsunami.”

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