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Increasing overdose deaths stress King County morgue

caption: A drug user displays two blue fentanyl pills she is smoking in downtown Seattle, October 22, 2021.
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A drug user displays two blue fentanyl pills she is smoking in downtown Seattle, October 22, 2021.
KUOW Photo/Anna Boiko-Weyrauch

King County is experiencing a grim indicator of how bad the opioid crisis has become.

Dr. Faisal Khan, director of Public Health – Seattle & King County, laid out one of the issues stemming from rising overdose deaths during a county Board of Health meeting last week.

"The Medical Examiner's office is now struggling with the issue of storing bodies because the fentanyl-related death toll continues to climb," Khan said.

He said the examiner's office has finite space in the coolers they use, and that space is being exceeded on a regular basis.

The number of overdose deaths in King County involving fentanyl have skyrocketed in the past few years.

County data shows 690 such deaths recorded last year, accounting for almost 70% of all overdose fatalities. In 2021, 385 fentanyl-related overdose deaths were recorded.

A spokesperson for the county’s public health department said via email that the increase in fatal overdoses is a driving factor of morgue capacity issues, but not the only source.

“Even prior to the recent rise in fatal overdoses, we were facing capacity issues due to the increased volume of deaths in conjunction with King County’s rapid population growth," the spokesperson said. "We have options for temporary morgue surge capacity when our census count gets high, including storing decedents on autopsy gurneys and partnerships with funeral homes. We’re exploring longer-term options for adding more capacity.”

Khan said the county has worked on overdose prevention for the past decade and it’s a key focus for his team this year, including work to increase access to treatment and reducing harm for people using drugs.

Substance use disorder is a treatable health issue.

There are multiple treatment options. Those looking for help can find resources through WA recovery helpline.

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