State medical examiner's office preparing for 'worst-case scenario'

By Garna Mejia, KSL TV | Posted - Nov. 20, 2020 at 9:18 a.m.

TAYLORSVILLE — Officials with the Utah Office of the Medical Examiner are putting plans into place in case the state sees a major rise in COVID-19 deaths.

Officials said they are trying to prevent this "worst-case scenario," but it's something they need to prepare for.

They walked KSL TV through their contingency plan if Utah sees a major surge in COVID-19 deaths, which could overwhelm health care systems and funeral homes.

"The numbers are real and I can say that just because I have been through their stories," said Dr. Erik Christensen, chief medical examiner. "These are all real people, every one of those numbers represents a person who is lost to their family members."

Christensen is tasked with signing off on every COVID-19 related death.

"All deaths from COVID fall under the jurisdiction of the medical examiner," Christensen said. "Under the list of things that constitute a risk to public health."

Christensen said they rented a refrigerated container in April, in preparation for a potential surge in COVID-19 deaths.

"We're renting a refrigerated storage unit, that we can use should we need it," he said.

They'll open the storage unit when they reach capacity inside their two existing coolers with space for about 80 bodies, and once funeral homes become overwhelmed.

One of two body cooler rooms at the Utah Office of the Medical Examiner in Taylorsville. (Photo: KSL TV)

"The one thing we've learned about coronavirus is the whole thing is fairly unpredictable," Christensen said.

Christensen said COVID-19 related deaths are transferred to the state medical examiner's office when additional testing is required, or the patient died without a doctor.

However, in most cases, COVID-19 patients were treated in a hospital setting. Christensen said hospitals also have similar plans in place.

"It is a concern the number of deaths being reported to us are big," he said. "For the last week, there has not been a day that we've had less than 20 total reported (deaths per day) … Most of those we end up confirming were COVID related deaths."

They're also seeing a slight increase (12%) across the board in non-COVID-19 related deaths, and Christensen said there has only been a slight increase in suicide and drug overdose deaths, which has been a concern during the pandemic.

That (coronavirus) spread that leads to people dying should be of concern to all of us because we can all do something about it.

–Dr. Erik Christensen, Utah Dept. of Health chief medical examiner

"It's pretty easy to pull out our COVID numbers and see that our numbers are still up," he said.

But when it comes to COVID-19, he said Utahns' actions have an impact.

"That spread that leads to people dying should be of concern to all of us because we can all do something about it," he said.

For those concerned about inflated COVID-19 deaths, Christensen said they are extremely careful not to count those who died for other reasons but were also COVID-19 positive. He estimated they've seen about 50 cases.

"We don't include deaths where there is another obvious cause," Christensen said. "Fifty deaths that have tested positive but died because somebody killed them or other factors."

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