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Inside Morgues: Coroners sound alarm as homicides, overdoses increase in Northeast Ohio during coronavirus pandemic

Posted at 7:35 PM, Oct 28, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-29 09:29:33-04

CLEVELAND — As doctors on the frontlines have dealt with the coronavirus pandemic for more than seven months now — there’s another group of doctors fighting a different battle.

From the 2,000-square-foot morgue tucked away behind the Stark County Jail, to the small office in Lake County, to Cuyahoga County’s sprawling forensic facility — coroners across Northeast Ohio are sounding the alarm.

News 5 sat down with medical examiners from Cuyahoga, Lake, and Stark counties, to take a close look at the data during the coronavirus pandemic.

The numbers show that from 2019 to 2020, there has been an increase in homicides and overdoses in Cuyahoga, Lake, and Stark counties.

Dr. Anthony Bertin, who has been with the Stark County Coroner’s office since 1986, said the county’s overdose deaths aren’t just concerning — they’re running the gamut in terms of ages.

“I saw recently an 85-year old that overdosed, so we’re seeing young and old,” Bertin said.

Meth, cocaine, and heroin all laced with fentanyl — the biggest culprit. Even pressed tablets of the potent drug.

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From the 2,000 square foot morgue tucked away behind the Stark County Jail, to the small office in Lake County, to Cuyahoga County’s sprawling forensic facility — coroners across Northeast Ohio are sounding the alarm.

In Lake County, Dr. Mark Komar works as the part-time coroner and a full-time family physician at Lake Health.

“We’ll be the first people to recognize an epidemic,” Komar said.

And one of the biggest tragedies of the summer, he said, was the most decomposed bodies his office has ever seen.

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From the 2,000 square foot morgue tucked away behind the Stark County Jail, to the small office in Lake County, to Cuyahoga County’s sprawling forensic facility — coroners across Northeast Ohio are sounding the alarm.

“People are stressed and alone. People do not go over to their loved ones' house on a regular basis,” Komar said. “One of the things we saw all summer long was an increase in the number of people who had been dead alone at home.”

Komar has been doing this for 40 years. When he took office, the Lake County coroner’s office averaged about 450 deaths. Now, they’re protesting 700 by the end of the year, switching to virtual death investigations sometimes, with police offices FaceTiming from scenes.

“And we’ve been forced into doing that because we can’t possibly visit 700 death scenes in a year. We just don’t have the manpower to be able to do that,” Komar said.

As the drugs and COVID-19 ravage our communities, violence is up as well.

Cuyahoga County is on pace to see more than 200 homicides in 2020.

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From the 2,000 square foot morgue tucked away behind the Stark County Jail, to the small office in Lake County, to Cuyahoga County’s sprawling forensic facility — coroners across Northeast Ohio are sounding the alarm.

“That hasn’t happened since 1993. That’s a staggering number. What does it mean,” said Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner Dr. Tom Gilson.

To him, it means the health of our community is at stake.

“I’ll beat that drum till I die — if you really want to understand the health of a community, see what people die from in that community,” Gilson said. “These aren’t good signs — escalating homicide rate, escalating suicide rate, a very high plateaued drug overdose numbers."

The trends can be traced back nearly a century — since the Cuyahoga County coroner back in the 1930s started keeping meticulous records. The statistical reports are published for the community every year, in the interest of public health.

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From the 2,000 square foot morgue tucked away behind the Stark County Jail, to the small office in Lake County, to Cuyahoga County’s sprawling forensic facility — coroners across Northeast Ohio are sounding the alarm.

The medical examiners hope highlighting these trends can raise awareness — and lead to those in power making changes.