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Reported backlog at Fulton County Medical Examiner's Office brings practices into question

An employee accused the office of improper practices and being understaffed.

ATLANTA — The Fulton County Medical Examiner's Office is under scrutiny after an employee, who wanted to remain anonymous, told 11Alive the office is understaffed and questioned policies and procedures there as bodies are piling up. 

The bodies represent homicides, accidental, natural deaths and anything that requires an autopsy. The ME's office said it handled more than 3,000 cases in 2021, up 16% compared to 2020 and up more than 27% compared to 2019.  

"They're trying to process the body as soon as possible," Dr. Dean Dabney, the chair of criminal justice at Georgia State University, said. "Volume dictates how that works out, in terms of staffing and volume."

The ME's office told 11Alive COVID-19, an increase in homicides, suicides and overdoses -- along with unattended deaths in homes and medical facilities -- were reasons behind the backlog. The concerned employee said they were worried the extra work will take days or weeks to complete.

It comes amid a staffing shortage at the ME's office, something officials said was occurring nationwide. 

"You’ve got people burning out," Dabney said. "What you’re seeing in hospitals with COVID would replicate right down to the ME. Your ability to staff up in an efficient, effective manner is challenging, as it is for any government entity. They don’t have a flexible budget. They can’t increase revenues. They have the budget that they have, and they have to make best use of it.”

RELATED: Around 29,000 criminal cases are stalled as GBI labs struggle with backlog

The concerned employee claims the office's reputation and improper practices in storing the high number of bodies was running otherwise potentially qualified staff away. They shared pictures showing what appeared to be body bags on pallets. Usually, bodies are refrigerated until autopsies can be performed. 

They're wanting to conduct those autopsies in a timely manner, so that they can have the most accurate assessment possible without the environment intervening," Dabney said. “Then you run into capacity issues, where you run out of space. They’ll go to a temporary space, like refrigerated trucks and the like. That doesn’t sound warm and fuzzy, but the practical realities of the crisis are the practical realities of the crisis.”

The Fulton County ME's office said the body bags were stored on pallets for a few hours, while the morgue area was being rearranged to accommodate more volume and so staff could place the body bags in a refrigerated trailer. 

RELATED: This west Georgia county is running out of morgue space | Here's how coroners are making it work

Dabney said the increase in cases could lead to delays in law enforcement investigations and lead to heartache for families awaiting answers on their loved ones.

"The families dealing with the death and the grief associated with that is monumental," Dabney said. "When situations like that come to light, it's heartbreaking."

The Fulton County ME's Office says it is working to recruit and retain more staff, getting more refrigerated trailers to store bodies and communicating with families still waiting weeks longer than usual to get results.

"Our staff of professionals are committed to the dignified treatment of all who are entrusted in our care," a spokesperson for Fulton County said. "It is unfortunate that anyone would have shared a misleading photo during a very brief window when the morgue area was rearranged as we prepared for the additional refrigerated trailer. This arrangement was in place for a matter of a few hours. No bodies were placed directly on the floor at any time. Any family member who has questions or concerns about their loved one is encouraged to contact us at 404-613-4400 between 8:30 a.m. and 5:00 p.m."