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Cook County medical examiner’s ‘absolutely unprecedented’ caseload: Deaths exceed 10,000 — and it’s not just COVID-19

More than half of the cases are tied to COVID-19, but Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, the chief medical examiner, said her office is also seeing increases in other type of deaths such as opioid overdoses.

Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, Cook County’s chief medical examiner, in her office in 2017.
Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, Cook County’s chief medical examiner, in her office in 2017.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

The Cook County medical examiner’s office is preparing for its deadliest year in history, already having investigated more than 10,000 deaths.

Standing outside the medical examiner’s office, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said this year’s case load is “absolutely unprecedented.”

Since the office was established in 1976, it has only exceeded 10,000 annual death investigations in three years in the late 1970s.

The county’s deadliest year was 1977, when pathologists examined 10,654 deaths. With four months left in 2020, Preckwinkle expects the tally to surge past that mark soon.

“These numbers point to a harsh reality as we come closer to the end of 2020. And once again, the burden is being felt disproportionately in communities of color,” Preckwinkle said. “While a quarter of our county’s population is African American — about 24% — close to 43% of the cases this office sees are African American residents.”

Black and Latino residents make up 94% of the homicides the office has investigated, Preckwinkle said.

Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, chief medical examiner of Cook County, left, and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, right, at a July news conference.
Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, chief medical examiner of Cook County, left, and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, right, in July.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Lack of access to nutritious foods and quality health care also contributed to the disparities as many of the deaths occurred in underserved communities.

“As a community we must do better,” Preckwinkle said. “These aren’t just names on a page, these are our neighbors, our friends, our family.”

In total, the medical examiner investigated 6,274 deaths in 2019, Preckwinkle said. That means the county has already seen 3,000 more cases than it did all of last year with four months remaining in the year.

The county exceeded the 10,000 mark early Monday when a 46-year-old man was pronounced dead in the 6400 block of South Promontory Drive near the lakefront and the Jackson Park Yacht Club, according to the medical examiner’s office.

Chicago police were called to the area about 9 p.m. Sunday after the 46-year-old man, who had been pulling in his boat, couldn’t be located. He was later found in the water and taken to the University of Chicago Medical Center where he was pronounced dead early Monday, police said.

More than half of this year’s deaths were related to COVID-19 — 5,030 as of Wednesday, according to the medical examiner’s office. Of those cases, 1,675 of the people who have died were Black.

But Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, the chief medical examiner, said the coronavirus pandemic is not the sole cause of the surge.

So far this year, at least 594 residents have died in homicides, and 1,566 were confirmed or pending opioid cases, Preckwinkle said. Another 282 deaths were determined to be suicides. Last year, the office handled 675 homicides, 1,266 opioid overdose-related deaths and 477 suicides.

Arunkumar said many of the deaths are preventable, such as opioid-related deaths, with better education about the danger of the drugs.

Cook County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Ponni Arunkumar conducts rounds in May.
Cook County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Ponni Arunkumar conducts rounds in May.
Charles Rex Arbogast/AP file

The medical examiner said the increase in fatalities over previous years is even more troubling because in the late 1970s, the office had a larger jurisdiction and saw more natural deaths than it does today.

“Today our scope is much more focused, which makes present day numbers more jaw dropping,” Arunkumar said. “If for the remainder of 2020, our case load stabilized to the levels we have experienced over the last several years, we would still double last year’s entire caseload.”

The medical examiner’s office hasn’t hired additional staff to assist with the increasing caseload, though for a period of time it did receive assistance from National Guard troops, said Natalia Derevyanny, a spokeswoman for the office. The office currently has 100 employees.

Since April, the medical examiner’s office has used a warehouse as a surge center to deal with the additional bodies, but that space has not reached its capacity yet, she said.

Among the types of deaths the Cook County medical examiner’s office investigates are those tied to criminal acts, suicides, accidents, unexpected deaths and suspicious deaths.

Contributing: David Struett. Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.