Soaring numbers of overdose deaths adding to already high coroner caseload

Montgomery County Coroner's Office. (WDTN, Justin Kraus)
Montgomery County Coroner's Office. (WDTN, Justin Kraus)

DAYTON, Ohio (WDTN) – Soaring numbers of overdose deaths are adding to the already high caseload of our local coroner.

The number of cases the Montgomery County Coroner and Medical Examiners are handling has increased over 60 percent this year and they say that number is not letting up any time soon.

“I think this is the starting point and I think it’s only going to get worse,” Montgomery County Coroner Dr. Kent Harshbarger said.

Harshbarger has worked in forensic pathology for 15 years and since then he’s seen a steady increase in cases.  Partly because Montgomery county is a referral center where other coroners send their autopsy exams to his laboratory, but more so because of the spike in overdoses.

“I’ve actually brought in some part time folks that have picked up a lot of the extra case load,” Harshbarger said.  “In the last 2 – 3 years we’ve jumped up probably 200 cases a year and just as an example 250 in considered a fulltime case load for a forensic pathologist, so every year I’ve needed a new pathologist to work.”

Besides homicides and questionable child deaths, his office does autopsies on the majority of overdose cases in the Miami Valley.  He said they take in approximately 30 overdose cases a month because of heroin and especially fentanyl.

“Last year we finished at 259, we’ll be near 400 at the pace we’re on just for Montgomery County,” Harsbarger said.

Too few pathologists and a wide variety of new street drugs also means that family members must wait longer for death certificates, potentially delaying insurance payouts.

According to Harshbarger, “With the increase in the laboratory work we have to do for toxicology and then all the unique products that are on the street now, it’s taking us a lot longer to rule on some of the cases.  Most of our cases still go out within 4-6 weeks, but there are the unique ones where our toxicology lab takes a bit longer to identify what’s in the blood.  Those are taking maybe 6-8 weeks,”

Coroners and medical examiners are considering alternatives measures to limit the cases in which they conduct a full autopsy, for example using CT scans in some cases.

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