Amid a Mississippi Coronavirus Surge, Morgues Are Overflowing and Coroners Are Scared

Amid a Mississippi Coronavirus Surge, Morgues Are Overflowing and Coroners Are Scared

In the months before his county’s morgue neared capacity, before he started wearing his face shield and “moon suit” to answer calls in neighbors’ homes, and before his own coronavirus diagnosis got him admitted to the hospital, Coahoma County, Mississippi, coroner Scotty Meredith knew this summer was going to be the worst in his three decades on the job. 

On April 3, as COVID-19 deaths in Mississippi hovered in the low double-digits, the state’s chief medical examiner, Mark LeVaughn, fired off a letter to Meredith and the state’s 80 other coroners. State law outlines a simple procedure for investigating deaths outside a hospital: the coroner collects evidence at the scene, then sends the body to a medical examiner in Jackson for autopsy. But the gist of the ME’s letter, obtained by The Daily Beast, was that when it came to deaths from COVID-19, coroners were on their own.

For years now, the severely understaffed state medical examiner’s office has struggled to handle all of the deaths in Mississippi. Doing so has often meant shifting more of the burden for handling deaths onto county coroners, who, unlike medical examiners, usually don’t have a medical degree and cannot perform autopsies. 

The problem with being shut out from the medical examiner’s office, as Meredith explained, “is not just that they’re not taking the cases, but there’s not any guidance” for what to do with a suspected coronavirus case. Several coroners said they’ve begun rationing supplies, like test kits, echoing supply-chain woes in other hard-hit states since the early days of the pandemic that experts generally believe have deflated the COVID-19 death count.

But in Mississippi, the bodies are piling up fast.

“My morgue was completely full all last week,” Panola County Coroner Gracie Gulledge told The Daily Beast. “It’s bad. We’ve only had our cooler full once or twice in the whole time I’ve been in operation, and it’s been 14 years.”

Over the last few weeks, Mississippi has emerged as something of a worst-case scenario in the country’s coronavirus landscape: an already poor, sick, medically under-resourced state where both infections and deaths are rising faster than almost anywhere. 

Last week, 200 Mississippians died from coronavirus, the second highest rate per capita in the country behind Arizona, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. But infectious disease experts say that the lack of standardization and resources among coroners, combined with Mississippi’s longstanding health disparities, means the death rate there is likely even higher. Although undercounting is a problem nationally, in a state like Mississippi, where resources are scarce and state leaders have been hesitant to impose mask regulations or scale back reopening, it could be a full-blown crisis. 

“If the coroners don’t have the resources to pursue the diagnosis or the potential diagnosis of COVID-19 in many of these unattended deaths, then that will undoubtedly lead to an undercount of the actual fatal impact of this pandemic virus,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious disease at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. 

And an accurate picture, he said, is essential for an accurate response. 

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