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Cook County M.E.’s autopsies in less than five months surpass entire 2019 tally: ‘We do not believe that these deaths had to occur’

“We’re used to dealing with death here — it’s our life’s work — but we’ll never be used to the tragedy that each death represents,” Medical Examiner Dr. Ponni Arunkumar said.

Cook County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, puts on personal protective equipment earlier this month.
Cook County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, puts on personal protective equipment as she prepares to perform four autopsies in as many hours at the county morgue in Chicago earlier this month.
Charles Rex Arbogast/AP file

More people have died and been autopsied by the Cook County Medical Examiner Office in the last five months than in all of last year.

And more than half of this year’s deaths were linked to COVID-19.

Those are the grim statistics released Wednesday by the medical examiner’s office, where pathologists are now conducting up to four times as many autopsies on any given day as they did before.

So far this year, the office has handled more than 6,500 deaths in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Of the 6,586 cases the medical examiner’s office has recorded in 2020 more than half — 3,518 — were COVID-19 related deaths.

The medical examiner’s office usually sees roughly 6,300 deaths each year. Last year, it handled 6,274 cases, according to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

The office surpassed that 2019 number Saturday “and we’ve yet to reach the halfway mark of 2020,” Preckwinkle said at a news conference outside the medical examiner’s office Wednesday.

One of two rooms at the Cook County Medical Examiner’s auxiliary storage facility that had yet to be utilized earlier this month.
One of two rooms at the Cook County Medical Examiner’s auxiliary storage facility that had yet to be utilized earlier this month.
Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

“Let that sink in,” she said. “As the deaths from COVID-19 continue to mount, the homicides and overdoses have not ceased. In fact, even without the COVID-19 cases the medical examiner’s office has seen almost 700 additional cases so far this year.”

The coronavirus, which has killed nearly 5,000 people in Illinois, has roughly tripled — and on some days, quadrupled — the case load for the county’s pathologists.

Cook County – and Illinois — reported its first case of the coronavirus on Jan. 24, and its first death, a 61-year-old South Side woman, on March 16.

But non-coronavirus deaths, specifically overdoses and homicides, have also increased in 2020.

The medical examiner’s office could not explain why there’s been an increase in opioid overdoses.

Cook County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Ponni Arunkumar conducts rounds in May.
Cook County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Ponni Arunkumar conducts rounds, an overview of cases for the day, with her medical staff of six fellow pathologists earlier this month.
Charles Rex Arbogast/AP file

In 2019, the office saw 20 to 25 overdoses or homicides a day. Now it can be more than 100 cases per day, Medical Examiner Dr. Ponni Arunkumar said.

“We’re used to dealing with death here — it’s our life’s work — but we’ll never be used to the tragedy that each death represents,” Arunkumar said. “While we concentrate on our mission to establish the cause and manner of death for cases that fall under our jurisdiction, we do not believe that these deaths had to occur. The deaths we deal with in our office are by and large preventable.”

Whether linked to the coronavirus or not, the majority of deaths are preventable through education and other measures, a spokeswoman for the office said in a statement.

“The office believes that the more data they can gather and provide to partners in public health, healthcare and law enforcement, the more likely we are to be able to work to prevent those deaths in the future,” the spokeswoman said.

Cook County Medical Examiner forensic technician Pero Paunovich wheels the body of a COVID-19 victim from an emergency-management truck earlier this month.
Cook County Medical Examiner forensic technician Pero Paunovich wheels the body of a COVID-19 victim from an emergency-management truck earlier this month.
Charles Rex Arbogast/AP file

The office’s increased case load has meant longer shifts for many employees. The county’s surge center, which was opened in preparation for coronavirus deaths, has held about 350 people —the daily count can be anywhere between 120 and 150 bodies.

The office is also still reviewing 35 cases from Nov. 1 to mid-April to see if those deaths, attributed to pneumonia and heart attack, could be linked to COVID-19. If connections to the virus are found, that could mean the county’s first confirmed coronavirus death was earlier than previously reported.

The medical examiner’s office is also looking to see if coronavirus played a factor in the deaths of those who had flu-like symptoms.

Depending on the results, the office could expand its review and start analyzing cases as far back as September, Arunkumar said.