Cobb medical examiner warns coronavirus could overwhelm morgue

File Photo: The Cobb County medical examiner investigates some deaths and performs autopsies. Credit: John Spink, jspink@ajc.com.

File Photo: The Cobb County medical examiner investigates some deaths and performs autopsies. Credit: John Spink, jspink@ajc.com.

Cobb Medical Examiner Christopher Gulledge said this week that his office has requested additional coolers and autopsy space from the state and neighboring Fulton County ahead of a potential increase in cases due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“We are not optimally placed to handle such an emergency,” Gulledge told the Board of Commissioners at a special meeting called Monday to discuss the virus. “We’re going to have to get creative, and I don’t even know what that’s going to look like yet.”

Cobb appears to be in a unique situation due to an aging facility that was scheduled for replacement this year.

But a national shortage of some medical supplies and an unknown mortality rate for the disease is raising pressure on all public health officials, including coroners and medical examiners.

These officials only perform autopsies in specific cases, such as apparent homicides, overdoses, when the cause of death cannot be determined or when it is related to a disease that might pose a public health risk.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation Chief Medical Examiner has been in regular contact with the department of public health and coroners throughout the state about the coronavirus and is ready to assist if needed, GBI said in a statement.

“At the current time, the office has an adequate amount of personal protective equipment, but depending on the duration of the pandemic, this could become a concern,” the statement continued.

In addition, the statement said the GBI is in the process of trying to locate qualified physicians to fill two open medical examiner positions.

“The potential of increased caseload would add an additional strain to the medical examiner’s office, but we will continue to provide the highest level of service to the citizens of Georgia,” the statement said.

GBI is advising coroners and funeral homes to request the assistance of neighboring facilities if storage becomes an issue. The state agency also has refrigerated trailers stationed throughout the state.

Medical examiners in DeKalb and Fulton counties did not respond to messages by press time.

Eddie Reeves, a chief investigator with the Gwinnett County Medical Examiner’s Office, said they were working out of a new facility with plenty of space and a generous store of protective gear.

“We’re basically going forward as usual,” Reeves said. He said staff would follow the guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control in handling remains of decedents under investigation for the COVID-19 virus.

Those guidelines acknowledge that much is unknown about the virus. They say postmortem activities should focus on avoiding the dispersion of tiny droplets into the air, known as "aerosol generating procedures," to protect workers from becoming infected. The guidelines also say that coroners should use "appropriate engineering controls and personal protective equipment" if that is likely, such as when using bone saws.

Gulledge took over as Cobb medical examiner in 2015 after the previous ME resigned under a cloud of citizen complaints and a critical county audit. Since then, Gulledge has been loudly calling for a new, state-of-the-art facility to replace the current building, which dates to the 1970s.

In 2016, Cobb voters approved a new facility as part of a list of projects funded by local sales tax. But the building is under construction and not slated to open for at least another six months.

Following Monday’s meeting, Gulledge said his comments were not intended to cause panic, but his office was already running out of space before the pandemic. He echoed calls for people to stay home to slow the spread of the virus so as not to overwhelm hospitals and morgues.

“We don’t need (the extra space) yet, but I am going to need it,” he said. “I think I’m going to need it. I really hope I don’t need it.”