7 Investigates: Fentanyl Epidemic Overwhelming Medical Examiners

(WHDH) – The opioid abuse crisis is taking a grisly toll across New England. And there are so many victims, some medical examiners don’t even have time to autopsy all of the bodies.

“She was talented. She could sing. She could dance,” said Patty Hopkins of her daughter, Tanita Landry. “She could pull you in, and you wanted to be around her.”

Landry may be gone now. But her music lives on, in videos her mother watches all the time.

“I like to hear her voice. I like to see the way she smiles,” Hopkins said.

Landry struggled with addiction for 17 years before losing her battle last year, to fentanyl.

“I think it’s a weapon of mass destruction,” Hopkins said.

And that weapon has ravaged the rustic city of Laconia. There have been 61 drug overdose deaths in the small county in the past five years.

Hopkins points out the fallen in her daughter’s photographs.

“She’s gone. She’s gone. She’s gone,” Hopkins said. “Every time one of those kids go, I feel like they’re one of mine.”

And all of them eventually end up in one sterile room in the basement of a hospital in Concord.

“There’s a drug death, or two, in there every single day,” said Dr. Thomas Andrew, New Hampshire’s Chief Medical Examiner.

Few people have a grimmer view of the fentanyl epidemic.

“It’s a public health and public safety disaster,” Andrew said.

His office now sees about 500 drug overdose deaths each year, compared to less than 50 just a few years ago.

With only two forensic pathologists for the entire state, “We no longer have the staff to confront this,” Andrew said.

That means more death certificates are being signed without the benefit of an autopsy. The National Association of Medical Examiners says that increases the risk of making a mistake.

“It would be possible to miss something that could be critical to public health just by skipping the appropriate procedure,” said Dr. Brian Peterson, the Chief Medical Examiner in Milwaukee County, Wisc., and the head of the National Association of Medical Examiners.

New Hampshire lawmakers recently approved adding a third forensic pathologist. But the job hasn’t been filled, and Andrew retires this month.

“They’re overworked, and they need more people,” Hopkins said.

No autopsy was ever performed on Tanita Landry. But her mother is less focused on her death than on her life.

“I would want someone to know her story – Tanita’s story. It’s not unique, but it’s unique to me,” Hopkins said.

There have also been concerns about running out of room. In Massachusetts, the number of bodies being stored spiked 11 percent in 2015. So the state started paying funeral homes more money to take unclaimed bodies faster – an additional $147,000 over the past 18 months.

The Massachusetts Office of the Chief Medical Examiner said that currently, roughly one out of every three deaths it investigates is the result of the opioid crisis, which has added to an already large workload burden and exacerbated long-running staffing shortage issues.

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