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MDH: Three FEMA Experts to Help with Maryland’s Autopsy Backlog

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MDH: Three FEMA Experts to Help with Maryland’s Autopsy Backlog

Feb 11, 2022 | 7:30 pm ET
By Hannah Gaskill
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MDH: Three FEMA Experts to Help with Maryland’s Autopsy Backlog
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The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore is facing staff shortages and a delay in completing autopsies. Maryland Department of Health photo.

The federal government will send three experts to Maryland’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to help ease an autopsy backlog that could grow to more than 300 by next week.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency confirmed Thursday that one expert from its Disaster Mortuary Operation Response Team — a unit that typically responds after natural disasters, terrorist attacks, transportation accidents and pandemics — would be sent to Maryland.

Dr. Jinlene Chan, Maryland’s deputy secretary of public health services, said Friday that FEMA would also send two forensic pathologists. They are expected to arrive in Baltimore on Monday.

Maryland’s Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Victor Weedn said last week that a request for assistance from FEMA was sent on Feb. 4, when the autopsy backlog was at 217.

Weedn projected that the number of bodies waiting for autopsy would reach 300 by this coming Wednesday.

FEMA to Deploy an Expert to Help with Autopsy Backlog, Health Department Facing Funding Restriction

As the backlog grows, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has opened a temporary morgue at Baltimore’s Metro West Garage.

Anne Wagner, a budget analyst for the Department of Legislative Services, told the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee’s Health and Human Services Subcommittee on Friday that a staff shortage at the agency is the driving factor for the delayed autopsies, which has been exacerbated by an increase in homicides and fatal overdoses in recent years.

According to legislative analysts, the number of filled, full-time medical examiner positions has been on the decline in the past few years.

In December 2019, there were approximately two vacant medical examiner positions. By December 2020, the unfilled positions grew to six.

December 2021 saw a slight improvement, but still had five vacancies for full-time medical examiners.

The position filled between 2020 and 2021 was Weedn.

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has been supplementing its lack of staff with per diem contracted medical examiners who are board-certified in forensic pathology. They earn a flat rate for each case they work on.

The state counts them as “full-time equivalent” medical examiners if they perform 250 autopsies during the calendar year.

The scarcity of staff at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is felt beyond medical examiners.

Chan said Friday that there is a national shortage of forensic pathologists, which makes Maryland’s effort to fill those positions all the more challenging.

Maryland has turned to per diem workers to fill those gaps, too. They make $850 per case.

Between July and December 2021, the state spent $725,900 across 11 per diem forensic pathologists.

During a meeting before the Postmortem Examiners Commission last week, Weedn said that his office currently has nine per diem forensic pathologists “doing the work of probably about seven full-time equivalents — and maybe more than that.”