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Opioid problem is so bad, the morgue is turning bodies away

Medical Examiner's Office overwhelmed with daily overdose deaths

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The opioid overdose problem is so bad in Duval County, bodies are being turned away from the morgue. For months, the I-TEAM has been tracking the growing number of heroin overdoses across the city and now News4Jax is going inside the morgue to see just how overwhelming and costly this problem is.

We've already heard from some viewers on social media, questioning why we're even doing this story. We want to tell you, it's because this drug is killing people here every day.

"Not a single day that I can recall in the past let's say eight months, that we have not had a drug overdose. Not one day goes by," said Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Valerie Rao.

Rao says the morgue is running out of space because opioids are killing so many.

CHECK YOUR ZIP: Overdoses in your neighborhood

Medical examiners do autopsies six days, four bodies at a time, in a relatively small room. The morgue can only hold 50 bodies. Rao says her office needs more space, something we saw firsthand when we went inside.

"We have to stagger them," explained Rao when we opened up the door to where the bodies are kept.

We observed the bodies, a couple of feet apart, revealing just how the office has outgrown the 50-year-old space.

At the time we were there, Rao counted 16 bodies, but every Monday she says it will fill up again, including overdose victims of heroin or any drug with fentanyl mixed in.

"We've never had drugs like this before, ever, ever in the history of this office," Rao said.

In 2015, the Medical Examiner's Office had 201 overdose deaths. In 2016, that number more than doubled to 464.

Fentanyl is so deadly, the Clewiston, Florida, Police Department shared a photo on its Facebook page to show just how little fentanyl it takes to kill the average adult. Just a few grains, compared to just heroin. And, it takes even less for the more potent version of the synthetic called carfentanil.

The influx of people dying from these overdoses has gotten so bad, Rao says there are days when her office has to refuse bodies from funeral homes and hospitals.

The cost of one autopsy is $3,000 and that price tag does not include expensive toxicology tests to confirm an overdose.

"Our budget is increasing every year. We are now preparing the budget for the next fiscal year and we have to add this. Our toxicology budget every year is a half a million dollars. That's a lot of money," explained Rao.

She says she needs more money for autopsies and more space for the bodies.

The city of Jacksonville says, since the building was constructed in 1968, it has spent millions of dollars on it and Public Affairs Director Marsha G. Oliver released this statement to News4Jax.

As the city’s population continues to grow, so does the need for many city services including those provided by our Medical Examiner. Since the building’s original construction in 1968, over $4 million has been invested in building additions, renovations, and expansions including a nearly $2 million improvement project completed a few years ago. In addition, this facility is included in the Capital Improvement Program, where each year, it is considered for priority scoring and ranking among city projects. These efforts demonstrate our continued commitment to monitoring and addressing the critical needs and services provided by our Medical Examiner’s Office.”

In the meantime, Rao and her staff are doing the best they can to deal with the tragedy opioids have created.

"You know, we come every day and we have to do what we have to do," said Rao. "There is no other way." 

Right now, Rao says her office is on pace to double last year's local body count due to overdoses, which again, was 464.


About the Authors:

Jenese Harris

Reporter, weekend anchor and movie reviewer.