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Coroner's office overwhelmed by caseload from COVID-19, homicides

Alfarena McGinty.JPG
Posted at 8:55 PM, Dec 03, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-03 20:55:25-05

INDIANAPOLIS — The Marion County Coroner's Office is dealing with a surging caseload brought on not only by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic but also by increases in homicides, suicides, drug overdoses and natural cause deaths.

Chief Deputy Coroner Alfarena McGinty said Thursday that the office is stretched thin trying to keep up with all the cases. In 2019, the office handled 1,860 accepted cases. Through Nov. 30 this year, the office has handled 2,372 cases.

"Across the board, we're seeing a significant increase in numbers, all types of cases — overdoses, homicides, suicides, natural deaths," McGinty said. "Whether it's due to COVID or not those natural death numbers have increased. We can't pinpoint why, what is actually happening with all of the case numbers and what the phenomenon is."

One possible reason for the increase in natural cause deaths is that people may have avoided going to the doctor or were unable to get necessary treatments and surgeries because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We're going to have to definitely go back and do some significant research," McGinty said. "We're trying to collect as much data as we can so we can retrospectively look at this and do some kind of research on where did all these cases come from."

With so many cases to investigate and with a single case costing around $2,000, McGinty said the coroner's office has sought and research some additional funds from the county.

The coroner's office has also had three employees so far test positive for the coronavirus.

"We really provide PPE and really push using PPE and cleaning and sanitation and all those things to keep our staff healthy but when one staff goes down man it's like losing 10," McGinty said. "So, you're pulling on the other staff to kick in and help with those investigations, autopsies, all of that."

Part of limiting the coroner's office staff's exposure to the coronavirus has also been to limit when autopsies are done and to ask screening questions about an individual or household's exposure to the virus before starting an investigation.

Staff members also test decedents for COVID-19 before making a decision about moving forward with an autopsy. If the test is negative, an autopsy to determine an individual's cause of death can proceed. If the test is positive, coroner's office staff do not conduct an autopsy but list complications of COVID-19 along with any other conditions from the person's medical history on their death certificate, McGinty said.

The exception is for homicides.

"We actually just had a case of an actual homicide where we had to take the decedent to IU to perform the autopsy because they have the negative air pressure room designed to prevent the spread of communicable diseases so we used their space to perform that autopsy on a homicide case that tested positive for COVID because autopsies are required on homicide cases," McGinty said.