Bodies to be kept in portable cooler while city addresses overcrowding at ME's office

I-TEAM: Bodies at medical examiner's office have been kept on floor, racks

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Some bodies awaiting autopsies by the Duval County Medical Examiner's Office will be kept in a portable cooler as a temporary fix to overcrowding issues, The Jacksonville City Council Finance Committee decided Tuesday.

As part of the short-term solution to the overflow of bodies, the city's Finance Committee will select a portable cooler next month to store the overflow of bodies. Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Valerie Rao said she's hopeful it will help.

"I think they will do what needs to be done," she said.

The Medical Examiner's Office will move its city vehicles so that the cooler can be placed there.

Last week, an I-TEAM investigation uncovered internal emails that 52 bodies awaiting autopsies arrived at the facility in the previous seven days, when the quota for the facility is 50. Bodies were being kept on the floor and on racks, cramping the space available to perform the death investigations.

During Tuesday's Finance Committee meeting, council members questioned why they hadn't heard about the issue sooner, as they were concerned about the body overflow issue.

But Rao disagreed, saying the issue is not new.

"We have been sending our caseload every day so that know what we are seeing every day," she said. 

Through a public records request, News4Jax found Tuesday that Rao has been emailing the City Council every day since August. A copy of one of the emails shows the number of bodies seen for the day. 

Rao has been asking for a new, larger building since last year. At a budget hearing in August, Rao presented the Finance Committee with a $4.5 million funding request.

That money was not approved for the city's $1.2 billion budget year that began in October, but the council did give the office $16,000 additional funding to convert a part-time position at the city medical examiner’s office to a full-time job, according to the Jacksonville Daily Record. The Duval County medical examiner’s office was last expanded in the 1990s, Jacksonville Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa told WJCT during that budget process.

In May, Rao walked into the Medical Examiner's Office's morgue and showed News4Jax why it needs more room. The problem was sparked by the opioid epidemic and population growth. 

Then, last week, the I-TEAM obtained an email showing the problem had gotten so bad, the Medical Examiner's Office had to put a body on the floor. 

Rao said Tuesday that she is grateful for the temporary fix, but the long-term solution is that the staff needs a bigger building. So far, the city has made no commitment to pay for a new building.

The Finance Committee will meet again on Jan. 5 to hear the plan from the Medical Examiner’s Office for the cooler. 

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