Fentanyl crisis leaves US morgues struggling for space

Morgues across the United States are grappling with a grim predicament – the fentanyl epidemic’s relentless surge has left some facilities desperately short on space. As Emily’s Hope reported earlier this year, a record nearly 110,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2022.

Some cities, such as San Francisco, are on pace to pass last year’s record. According to the San Francisco Chief Medical Examiner’s Office, 473 people in the city have died from drug overdoses so far this year, with 385 of those deaths caused by fentanyl.

This struggle isn’t confined to one place. Head east to New Hampshire, and you’ll find morgues grappling with an ever-growing number of fentanyl-related fatalities. WMUR reports that before the opioid crisis, the state morgue performed a complete autopsy on nearly every person who died from a drug overdose. Now they don’t have enough time to do that. 

“We can’t keep up with the numbers anymore,” Kim Fallon, chief forensic investigator, told WMUR. “There are standards for how many autopsies the pathologist should do. We have two (pathologists). We should have three, but there is a nationwide shortage of forensic pathologists.”

Pathologists are struggling to keep up with autopsies, and some morgues are running out of space to store bodies. Earlier this year the Director of Public Health for Seattle and King County, Dr. Faisal Khan, told KIRO7 that there’s a set amount of space in the coolers the Medical Examiner’s office uses, and the limit is being reached regularly. Dr. Khan also emphasized that it’s not just Seattle struggling with this issue, but most major metropolitan areas across the country.

“The rise in fentanyl nationally and locally over the past few years has led to a much more dangerous drug supply,” Kahn said, according to KIRO7. “Fentanyl has increased the risk of overdose and death, even from taking one pill or using a small amount of powder. It is now involved in 70% of King County overdose deaths, as of December 2022.”