The demand for services that transport dead bodies is soaring in West Virginia, a state with the highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the country.
The state is being battered by the national opioid epidemic, which is forcing the government to spend more on autopsies and transporting bodies from the place of death, to the state morgues and finally a funeral home. West Virginia’s Department of Health and Human Resources said the state paid out $881,620 in Fiscal Year 2017 to private contractors for body transportation services, reports Charleston Gazette-Mail.
The cost is more than double what the state paid to these contractors in 2015, which health officials blame on the explosion of opioid abuse since 2010. The number of bodies transported in FY 2017 rapidly grew over two years, rising from 2,200 in 2015 to roughly 4,200.
“Now, it’s nothing for us to have two or three in the same day … or six or seven in a week,” Jim Lowry, a retired funeral worker who recently came back on the job to aid Charleston Mortuary Services, told the Charleston Gazette-Mail. “It’s just out of sight.”
Lowry said that the majority of the increase in bodies is for young adults between the ages of 18 and 30. Drug overdose deaths claimed a record 880 lives in West Virginia in 2016, fueled by the increased prevalence of synthetic opioids in heroin supplies. The medical examiner’s office currently picks contractors on a rotating basis that must transport bodies to one of the two state-operated morgues in Charleston and Morgantown.
“I hate to say it — and this is going to sound cold and callous — but you just learn to get along with it,” Lowry told the Charleston Gazette-Mail. “To a certain extent, you get used to it.”
Autopsies for drug related deaths typically take two weeks, after which the body is transported by contractors to a funeral home. Officials say it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep up with the number of bodies coming into the morgue. The Morgantown morgue can only handle roughly 250 autopsies per year.
Data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse released Sept. 7 paints a grim outlook for the current opioid crisis ravaging American communities. The number of active heroin users in the U.S. more than doubled between 2002 and 2016 from 404,000 to 948,000, according to the data, driven primarily by the massive influx of fentanyl.
The study predicts that the addiction epidemic in America will continue to deteriorate, pushing drug deaths to an estimated 71,600 in 2017. If the estimates prove accurate, 2017 will be the second year in a row that drug deaths surpass U.S. casualties from the Vietnam War.
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