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'It's crowded': St. Louis Co. Medical Examiner's Office needs more space for influx of overdose deaths

County Executive Sam Page said some bodies are stacked to make room.

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. — There are so many opioid-related deaths in St. Louis County, a new Medical Examiner's Office may be needed.

County Executive Dr. Sam Page says there isn't enough room to keep up with the death toll.

"The pandemic appears to have impacted the number of overdoses and deaths tied to opioids," Page shares. 

It's been an opioid epidemic within a pandemic and a battle both the country and the St. Louis area face.

So much so, St. Louis County is seeing record numbers.

  • There were 343 opioid-related deaths in 2021, tying the record high in 2020
  • 94.5% of those involved fentanyl

The Drug Enforcement Administration St. Louis Division reports it seized a record amount of fentanyl last year.

In 2021, nearly 188 kilograms were seized through Missouri, Kansas and southern Illinois. 

This is compared to 82 kilograms in 2020 and 104 in 2019.

In September, the DEA put out a safety alert about fentanyl in counterfeit pills, which is responsible for 75% of opioid overdose deaths nationally.

Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin and it's 100 times stronger than morphine. Only 2 milligrams could be a lethal dose.

To curb this problem, the county's health department is rolling out several measures:

  • The department of public health is working on a two-year Opioid Action Plan to raise awareness, boost prevention services, expand treatment, and provide a transition to stable housing and employment
  • Increase supply and distribute more Narcan to the community in the coming months

In the meantime, it tries to keep up with the influx of overdose deaths.

Page says the Medical Examiner's Office is swamped and overrun with work.

RELATED: Expert: Why 'naltrexone' should be as common as 'Narcan'

"It's crowded because they don't have enough room to process all the folks that are coming through. Chronic shortages of space means the bodies of individuals are often stacked upon one another," Page shares. 

He admits this is not a dignified way to handle the bodies of loved ones, but at times, there is no other option.

More space could also bring some comfort to families.

"Grieving families to identify a loved one share a tiny lobby with delivery drivers and anyone else entering the building, making those emotional moments that much harder for relatives," he adds. 

Page says the health department will make a recommendation and a proposal on how to improve the current situation.

He believes they will call for a larger facility. 

Beyond a new building, Page said it's in need of additional staff for higher level of services for autopsies related to these deaths. 

Currently, it's undetermined where this money would come from. 

A spokesperson for the health department says the money could possibly come from ARPA funds, as well as money from the recent opioid settlement last month. 

RELATED: Missouri finalizes $458M deal in opioid crisis lawsuit

However, the influx isn't just being seen here.

Agencies, such as the Queen of Peace Center, are trying to combat this problem, as well.

"We provide family center behavioral health care for women with substance use disorders, their children and their families," CEO Sharon Spruell said.

Since 1985, the agency has assisted anywhere from 1,000 to 1,200 women every year.  Most clients come from St. Louis City and St. Louis County. 

It has residential services and outpatient support. They, too, try to keep up in order to help anyone needing support.

"We're definitely seeing a greater need for services. We're definitely seeing an increase in individuals with opioid use disorder, about 60% of the clients we see are using opioids," Spruell adds.

If you need support for you or your loved one or want to learn more information about Queen of Peace's efforts, or would like to donate, click here.

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