CHICAGO (CBS) — Due to staffing shortages, the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office has announced that full autopsies will no longer be performed in certain cases in which drugs or alcohol might have led to a person’s death.
The temporary policy was laid out in a May 12 memo sent to employees from Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Nancy Jones.
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According to the internal memo, full autopsies will not be performed in some cases, including drug overdoses in which the person spent time at a hospital before his or her death, or people who had histories of certain types of heart or lung disease and are “also known to abuse drugs and/or alcohol.”
The memo cites an “impending shortage of staff pathologists” in implementing the policy, but some inside the medical examiner’s office are concerned that it will leave families of the dead without complete answers on how their loved ones died.
Several pathologists have left the Medical Examiner’s office in recent months because they disagreed with autopsy policies already in place, a source inside the office said, and the office has been unable to find pathologists to take their place.
The memo goes on to state that a full autopsy will be performed if the family requests it, and that “if there is any question” about a certain case then an autopsy should be performed to “rule out potential contagious disease or other threat to public health and safety.”
The policy will be effective immediately, according to the memo.
Cook County Bureau of Administration spokeswoman Mary Paleologos tells CBS 2 that the policy will be in place for two to three months.
This year has been a difficult one for the Medical Examiner’s office. Earlier in the year, the office was hit with a scandal when bodies were found stacked in an overflowing cooler and otherwise mishandled.
Crowding at the county morgue, 2121 W. Harrison St., was brought to light after a family’s two-week search for a missing man whose body was there all along.
Sheila Hostetler, the man’s sister, said even the morgue workers admitted they had the man’s body. “They were like, ‘OK come get the body,’ and it’s really so heartbreaking,” she said in March.
Then pictures showing conditions at the morgue came out. Most infamously, a cell phone photo revealed bodies stacked up in blue bags outside an overflowing cooler. Meanwhile, the cooler itself was supposed to hold 300 bodies, but had been filled with 363.
The scandal led the Cook County Board to approve new regulations on the office.
The regulations make it easier to fire the Medical Examiner, who essentially had a job for life under the previous structure. Now, chief Medical Examiners will serve a five-year term.
The new rules also require greater accountability, including regular reports by the medical examiner to the county board. Also, bodies at the morgue must be buried within 60 days.
The overcrowding scandal has also led to the termination of two Medical Examiner’s office workers, and disciplinary action against a third. One of the fired workers, Joel Neason, later found himself charged with assault after threatening to bring a gun to work when he found out he would be disciplined, according to published reports.