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Coroners Under Pressure As Pandemic Brings Budget Cuts

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The pandemic has caused many kinds of work disruptions. Some people have lost work. Others have more work than they can handle. And we're sorry to say that people with extra work include coroners. Colorado Public Radio's Kevin Beaty brings us this perspective from Denver.

JIM CARUSO: Ryan (ph), you got all the tox you need, I'm sure, right?

RYAN: I think we're all good.

KEVIN BEATY, BYLINE: This is Dr. Jim Caruso.

CARUSO: I'm the chief medical examiner and coroner for the city and county of Denver. And at this present time I am performing a postmortem examination.

BEATY: Every day, Caruso and his team deal with all the things we avoid in polite society. Anyone in Denver who dies suddenly - usually outside of a doctor's care - ends up here. It's Caruso's job to determine the official cause of death, then compile numbers that shed light on trends in public health.

CARUSO: Our workload is up 35% from last year which, unfortunately, in the middle of a pandemic, is problematic.

BEATY: Coroners all over the U.S. say they've seen more victims of substance abuse and violent crime than usual this summer. It's thought to be an indirect result of COVID-19 lockdowns and the ensuing recession. But those forces have also caused budget cuts that can pack coroners' offices, too. That can slow critical processes families need to move towards closure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAW GRINDING)

CARUSO: We're being told to cut our budgets, to take furloughs. I need more investigators. I need more doctors. I need more admin staff.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEYBOARD CLICKING)

BEATY: Caruso was able to bring on one new administrator recently.

IAN HARWICK: So I'll take all of this, make sure everything's correct, and then I'll populate a death certificate.

BEATY: Ian Harwick worked in another city department before he took a job helping Caruso keep up with death certificates. He had to brace himself to see death up close. But once he got past the initial shock, he realized seeing all of Denver's dead bothered him in a way he didn't expect.

HARWICK: It starts to paint this picture of what's not working in our city, in our state, in our society. Now I'm up close and personal with it not working. And that's sad. Like, it definitely has changed my perception of everything.

BEATY: A possible overdose, an un-housed man found in an alley, it can be hard to see so much loss at once. But he and his colleagues lean on each other. Galena Brown has worked here for more than a decade. Her job is to help families with paperwork, but she often supports her colleagues, too.

GALENA BROWN: I've had people come into my office and just release, and I think that's great. And that's what we need to do, especially in this field. And sometimes we're not even aware that we need it, which is what I discovered, too, you know, this secondary trauma and grief that you carry for humanity, even.

BEATY: Still, she appreciates the perspective her job offers, and she wishes more people could see Denver the way she does - that they could see how many people slip through the cracks.

BROWN: It really boils down to our mental health. Is there enough access? Have we learned self-care? Have you checked in on a friend you know is quarantining and then also like to self-isolate already? You can ask those questions, and it shouldn't be taboo. You just throw it out there. Are you good?

BEATY: Especially, she said, in this moment of stress.

CARUSO: OK. See what we have.

BEATY: For NPR News, I'm Kevin Beaty in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: September 24, 2020 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this story misspelled the reporter Kevin Beaty's last name as Baity.