Warren County autopsy spike blamed on opioid epidemic: 'Busiest time we have ever had'

County Coroner Russell Uptegrove told the county commissioners he had already conducted 122 autopsies and was on a pace to do 172 by the end of the year.

In the 28-county area served by the Miami Valley Crime Lab, the total through six months indicated 2,600 autopsies would be completed in 2017, resulting in 900 more than last year, Uptegrove said.

MORE: Drug overdose deaths jump 33 in Ohio

“This has been the busiest time we have ever had,” said Uptegrove, coroner in Warren County and a forensic pathologist at the regional lab.

Uptegrove, county coroner since 2007 and an assistant since 2004, attributed the uptick to the “terrible opioid epidemic” in the Dayton region.

Already this year, 64 Warren County deaths have been confirmed as the result of drug overdoses (compared with 70 in all of last year), with another 19 “most likely” pending final results, Uptegrove said during Tuesday’s county commission meeting in Lebanon.

RELATED: Heroin problem plaguing Warren County too

According to his biography, Uptegrove “has been involved with death investigation since 1992.”

In addition to working in the regional crime lab in Dayton, Uptegrove is a guest lecturer at the Ohio Peace Officers Training Academy and a clinical instructor for Wright State University School of Medicine. He is also a member of the Ohio State Coroner’s Association, American Academy of Forensic Sciences and National Association of Medical Examiners.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Uptegrove told the commissioners each autopsy cost $1,550, resulting in $189,100 to date, $9,069 more than was budgeted for this purpose in 2016.

“When the Coroner has exhausted all $180,031, the Commissioners will provide a supplemental appropriation to the Coroner’s budget to accommodate autopsy expenditures through the remainder of the year,” County Administrator Tiffany Zindel said in an email after the meeting.

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If the county trend continues, the cost for autopsies would be $266,600. The extra money will come from the county’s general fund, Zindel said.

The projected total of 172 is 70 more than in all of 2015 and 36 more than last year, according to Uptegrove.

While still in the midst of an epidemic, Uptegrove indicated “slight downticks” at the regional lab in July and August could signal a “ray of hope.”

Recently, the coroner - and forensic pathologist - said, examinations are showing evidence fentanyl sold by dealers is being mixed with cocaine and methamphetamine, diluting the potency of the drugs being sold.

MORE: ‘Gray death’ blamed for overdose

“Possibly some of these drug dealers are getting a little smarter,” Uptegrove said, suggesting the new mixes prevent them from “killing their clients.” This also lessens the likelihood of police involvement and arrest.

“Maybe it’s going to tail off,” he said.

On the other hand, Uptegrove said - like summer months - the holiday season often turns deadly.

“Thanksgiving to New Year’s is usually kind of a busy time of the year,” he told the commissioners. “It’s just unpredictable.”

MORE: Springboro, Franklin seek help to battle heroin

Warren County departments are submitting their budgets for the coming year in anticipation of sessions with the commissioners. Uptegrove’s request is only $180,000 for autopsies.

Uptegrove said he originally requested more, but reduced his request at the direction of Zindel and the commissioners, although he is expecting to need more money by the end of 2018.

“Unfortunately we can’t forecast,” he said after the meeting.

He said the final budget request reflected the fact the commissioners have directed staff to seek no increases in 2018 budgets, as they anticipate a jump in expenses, including debt on a $50 million jail.

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