Maryland’s Chief Medical Examiner Resigns Over Autopsy Backlog

By: - February 22, 2022 12:00 am

A medical examiner dons personal protective equipment in preparation for performing autopsies in May 2020. As caseloads have risen dramatically nationwide, Maryland’s chief medical examiner resigned amid a backlog nearing 300 bodies. Charles Rex Arbogast/The Associated Press

Maryland’s chief medical examiner resigned abruptly amid a sizeable backlog of bodies awaiting post-mortem examinations and autopsies, a situation that had prompted the state to seek help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Dr. Victor Weedn had led Maryland’s medical examiner office, one of the busiest in the country, since 2019. He announced his resignation after a Friday meeting of the state’s Postmortem Examiners Commission, which oversees the office. The commission announced that the deputy medical examiner, Dr. Pamela Southall, will serve as the interim chief.

As in other states, the Maryland office has experienced a rising caseload, fueled not only by the COVID-19 pandemic but also by increasing rates of overdose deaths, homicides and traffic fatalities. But the situation in Maryland was particularly dire.

Over approximately the past two months, Maryland caseloads have climbed by almost 400%, with the number of bodies awaiting examination growing from 50 in late December to 240 in February. Weedn recently estimated that the backlog of bodies could soon reach 300. Without sufficient storage for the bodies, employees complained about remains in hallways and the smell of decomposition. The office has since added off-site storage in refrigerated trucks in a parking lot.

The situation prompted the state to ask for help from FEMA, which agreed to dispatch “fatality management” experts, including forensic pathologists, to try to help reduce the backlog of bodies.

The rising workload in Maryland and in many medical examiners’ offices across the country is exacerbated by a lack of personnel, particularly a shortage of forensic pathologists, who are trained to do post-mortem examinations and autopsies to determine causes of deaths.

Only about 40 new forensic pathologists graduate from fellowship programs a year, fewer than the numbers needed to replace working forensic pathologists who retire or enter private practice, according to the National Association of Medical Examiners. The group estimates that the country needs about double the estimated 500 board-certified forensic pathologists now in practice.

Most deceased—about 80%—do not require post-mortem examination by medical examiners. Those are generally reserved for those who die violently, unexpectedly, without a readily apparent cause of death or not under the care of a physician. 

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Michael Ollove

Michael Ollove covers health care for Stateline. Ollove worked for many years at The Baltimore Sun, as an enterprise reporter and an editor.