BALTIMORE — The Maryland Office of Chief Medical Examiner is experiencing an unprecedented backlog of autopsies. The delays mean families have to wait weeks to say goodbye to their loved ones who were murdered or overdosed.
“The bodies are piling up and decaying right in front of everyone’s eyes,” said Patrick Moran, President of AFSCME Council 3, which has members who are autopsy assistants and forensic investigators. “Bodies are decomposing, and that’s not the way to treat those that have lost their lives and families who are looking for closure.”
More than 200 bodies are awaiting autopsy. Moran said members of the union describe a gruesome scene at the agency in Baltimore, which is responsible for investigating violent or suspicious deaths, including all deaths unattended by a physician.
“It’s pretty vile, and it’s pretty unhealthy,” said Moran.
Running out of space, the Maryland Department of Health converted a parking garage downtown into a morgue until a permanent expansion could be built.
“The additional storage that has been provided allows adequate capacity decedents that may be awaiting autopsy as well as decedents who are completed and awaiting funeral homes,” said Dr. Jinlene Chan, Deputy Secretary of MDH, at a House subcommittee meeting last week.
Dr. Chan said the backlog has been rising for the last few weeks. It’s caused by high vacancy rates (17.2 percent in December) and increasing numbers of murders and drug overdoses, which are resource-intensive cases.
An MDH spokesperson said there is a nationwide shortage of qualified applicants.
Moran said it’d been a longstanding challenge to maintain adequate staffing.
As of December, three positions had been vacant for almost a year. Fire medical examiners have retired or resigned over the last two years, and three more are expected to retire soon.
“We need them to recruit more people to do the job. They need to look at what people need. The resources people need to do the job, the salary they need to do the job, and take action.
In a statement, MDH said they offer highly competitive salaries, and they are performing direct outreach to fill openings, dedicating a recruitment specialist specifically for OCME.
To assist with the growing workload, MDH added 21 new positions, including medical examiners, toxicologists, and support professionals.
In the meantime, FEMA is supplying two pathologists and two pathology assistants to provide additional support to OCME beginning this week.
The delays ultimately impact the families who grieve the loss of a loved one.
“The families are anxious anyway because they have lost someone dear to them, so it adds onto the anxiety level,” said Erich W. March, the VP and CEO of March Funeral Homes.
March said the OCME used to take two days to perform an autopsy. Now it’s taking as long as two weeks from the date of death, forcing families to wait to say their final goodbyes.
“It makes it difficult for the family plans their memorial service or tribute because they don’t have a real set date as to when the preparations can be completed,” said March.
The OCME is accredited by the National Association of Medical Examiners or NAME. To maintain that status, there are specific standards they have to meet, and these issues are causing violations.
NAME’s standard is that no autopsy physician should be required to perform more than 325 autopsies per year. In fiscal 2021, OCME reported its highest ratio with 390 autopsies performed per ME, significantly surpassing the phase II standard.
In the FY23 MDH budget analysis, the Department of Legislative Services wrote that although OCME can continue to operate without accreditation, being accredited by NAME improves the public’s trust that the office is performing its work in a proper environment and limits questions about the validity of MEs’ findings at trials.
DLS pointed out that increased ME vacancies and higher caseloads have led to this ratio, and it is likely to have lasting impacts on recruitment and retention efforts.
Abby Isaacs at WMAR first reported this story.