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Maryland Medical Examiner Seeks Federal Assistance For Body Backlog

BALTIMORE (WJZ/AP) -- A major backlog has the Maryland medical examiner asking the federal government for help managing a backlog of more than 200 bodies that are awaiting autopsies in Baltimore.

Chief Medical Examiner Victor Weedn told the Postmortem Examiners Commission that he would make a formal request Friday for help from Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Teams, The Daily Record reported.

As of Friday, 217 bodies were awaiting examinations by the state's forensic pathologists, but Weedn said that number could surpass 300 in less than two weeks.

The number of cases investigated grew 85% between 2012 and 2020. Once, the office could turn around 99% of cases in less than 24 hours, but today, it can take two weeks.

The backlog began in mid-December, but by Jan. 13, an initial 50 bodies waiting for autopsy doubled.

"The caseload has increased drastically over the last year," Weedn said.

The number of bodies waiting to be autopsied changes nearly every day. Between November 2021 and early February 2022, that number has fluctuated between approximately 40 and 200, Andy Owen, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Health, told WJZ.

Contributing to the backlog is a staff shortage. The office has lost at least four forensic pathologists and the chief of investigations. The lack of staff threatens the agency's accreditation because staffing has fallen below national standards.

The national picture for forensic pathologists shows a crucial shortage, with only about 750 board-certified forensic pathologists across the country according to the National Association of Medical Examiners, Owen said. This has created a "very difficult recruitment environment for all medical examiner and coroner offices," including Maryland's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, he said.

"As is the case throughout the country, OCME is facing staffing-related challenges, including a shortage of pathologists as well as staff affected by COVID-19," Owen said. "Furthermore, OCME handles many homicides and opioid-related deaths, which are resource-intensive cases."

The office does not typically handle COVID-19 cases, he added.

To mitigate the problem, the Department of Health is working to free up 21 new positions, Deputy Health Secretary Dr. Jinleen Chan said. The positions are for assistant medical examiners, toxicologists, autopsy assistants, forensic investigators, and administrative personnel, Owen said.

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