'We’re working flat out': Coroner's office struggles to cope as opioid crisis claims record number of addicts' lives

Martin Geissler

Former ITV News Correspondent

Warning: This article contains images which some viewers may find distressing

The garage door lifts in the Montgomery County mortuary, another van backs in. Two men unload a corpse from the rear of the vehicle and wheel it on a trolley towards the huge refrigerator where the bodies are stored.

They’re running out of room here, the shelves are almost full. Just four spaces left and it’s only ten o’clock in the morning. They built an extension to the mortuary recently but soon they’ll need another. They could never have planned for what’s happening just now.

Opioids, man-made forms of heroin, are killing addicts in such numbers that the system simply can’t cope.

They’ve taken more American lives in the past twelve months than guns, cars or AIDS have ever claimed in a single year, even at their peak.

A drug believed to be the highly potent opioid Carfentanil is tested in a laboratory.

This is a genuine crisis, let there be no doubt about that. “The worst drug epidemic in US history”, according to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. And, as we watch the latest corpse wheeled in, Dr Kent Harshbarger tells me this may just be the start of it.

As the county’s coroner, he’s had a clearer view than anyone of the toll these drugs are taking.

If you extrapolate the numbers, he reckons ten thousand people could die from overdoses this year in Ohio alone. That’s three times the number of lives lost in the 9/11 attacks, in just one state.

Expand those numbers across the USA and it’s easy to see why he describes this as “a national emergency”.

Dr Kent Harshbarger speaks to Martin Geissler about the crisis at the mortuary.

“If this wasn’t drugs, there would be tons of resources helping us”, Kent tells me “but because it’s a medical event, it’s just not getting the resources it needs”.

The crisis is taking a toll on his staff “we’re working flat out, we can’t handle it. We’re trained to deal with this but there’s no time to decompress any more”, he says.

Vials of blood samples taken from addicts who have died are tested at the mortuary's lab.

His team used to conduct a handful of autopsies per day, now they start at seven in the morning and work straight through til four. “They’re taking it home with them”, Kent says “there’s no time to mentally adjust to what they’re seeing.”

He’s advertising for new recruits but he doesn’t expect a flood of applications.

The town of Dayton in the US state of Ohio is in the grip of an opioid crisis.