California county's 'explosion' of deaths from homicide surge, COVID cause backlog of bodies at coroner

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A coroner’s office in northern California is grappling with a growing backlog of bodies as coronavirus-related procedures delay autopsies by weeks and an uptick in homicides and overdose deaths amounts to what one official described as “an explosion of people dying,” according to a report. 

In a single day this month, staff at the Alameda County Coroner’s Bureau were tasked with completing 21 autopsies, as more than 100 bodies sat in refrigeration at the facility. At last year’s peak, refrigeration trailers stored up to 120 bodies at a time, Sgt. Erik Bordi told the San Francisco Chronicle.

The onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 ushered in an “an explosion of people dying,” Bordi said. But the pace of deaths has not slowed over the past two years, as Oakland experiences a surge in homicides and the region continues to grapple with an overdose crisis. 

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The Alameda County coroner recorded 4,031 deaths in 2019, 5,233 in 2020 and 5,622 last year, according to data obtained by the newspaper through a public records request. Last year, the bureau handled 165 homicides, including 139 individuals who died from gunshot wounds. 

Autopsies that used to take an average of two to five days now take between two and three weeks, Alameda County sheriff’s spokesperson Lt. Ray Kelly told the Chronicle. That’s due to staffing shortages as well as procedures requiring pathologists to test each body for COVID-19. 

Oakland police Lt. Frederick Shavies insisted that the backlog of bodies at the corner has not inhibited homicide investigations. The volume of death still impacts law enforcement from a human perspective, as they’re tasked with calling families, driving to the homes of the departed and consoling the bereaved.  

“They may know the manner of death,” Bordi said, “but they can’t close the case.”

Alameda County Sheriff's Office command staff honor Sheriff’s Recruit David Nguyen and supported his family as he was taken from the coroner’s bureau in the city of Oakland to a mortuary in Colma. Services for Nguyen were held on Monday, Jan. 24, 2022.

Alameda County Sheriff’s Office command staff honor Sheriff’s Recruit David Nguyen and supported his family as he was taken from the coroner’s bureau in the city of Oakland to a mortuary in Colma. Services for Nguyen were held on Monday, Jan. 24, 2022.

Families are also impacted as they wait weeks to find out autopsy results for their deceased loved ones. 

Rev. Ramon Andre Price Sr., a Baptist pastor who lost two sons to gun violence, one in 2012 and one last year in an Oakland expressway shooting, works with funeral homes in East and West Oakland. He told the Chronicle the volume of death and backlog at the coroner’s office changes the rhythm of his work.

“We’ve been waiting anywhere from a week to two and a half to three weeks to remove a family’s loved one from the coroner’s office,” Price said. “We call the coroner’s office daily, and we try to give the families an update daily… Even if they tell me, ‘It’s not scheduled for this week, try again next week,’ I’ll still call every day this week. I try to remain optimistic.”

Alameda County Sheriff’s Office command staff honor Sheriff’s Recruit David Nguyen and support his family as he was taken from the coroner’s bureau in the city of Oakland to a mortuary in Colma. Services for Nguyen were held on Monday, Jan. 24, 2022.

Alameda County Sheriff’s Office command staff honor Sheriff’s Recruit David Nguyen and support his family as he was taken from the coroner’s bureau in the city of Oakland to a mortuary in Colma. Services for Nguyen were held on Monday, Jan. 24, 2022.
(Alameda County Sherriff’s Office/Facebook)

Elsewhere in the Bay Area, Contra Costa County saw the number of cases handled by the coroner’s office rise drastically. In 2019, there were 6,056 cases. That increased to 7,080 in 2020 and 7,215 in 2021. Not all deaths are reported to a coroner, and not all handled by the coroner require autopsies.

But other counties haven’t seen a significant spike. For example, the San Mateo County Coroner’s Office handled 2,059 deaths reported in 2019, 2,260 in 2020, and 2,254 in 2021. And the San Francisco Office of the Chief Medical Examiner reported 1,409 deaths in 2019, 1,631 in 2020, and 1,627 deaths in 2021. 

Autopsy results may also be delayed by backlogs at laboratories, and some cases require additional testing. When people can’t be identified through dental records, pathologists probe for DNA samples. Still, unresolved cases leave friends and family members wondering what happened. 

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For instance, the case of 27-year-old Stanford ICU nurse Michael Odell remained open as of Feb. 8. Odell reportedly walked out to his car around 4:30 a.m. in the middle of his shift at the Bay Area hospital. His body was found two days later near a wildlife refuge in Fremont on Jan. 20. 

“There’s a lot of suffering out there,” Odell’s former roommate who reported him missing, Joshua Christopher Paredes, told the Chronicle, acknowledging the mounting death tolls in the region. 

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