AP Exclusive: Chicago morgue coping despite surge in deaths

Full Screen
1 / 15

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

In this Tuesday, May 5, 2020, photo, Cook County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, dawns personal protective equipment as she prepares to perform four autopsies in as many hours at the county morgue in Chicago. Arunkumar starts her day with a numbers problem. It's how to manage a tripling of death cases with the same number of pathologists and the same number of hours in a day as before COVID-19. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

CHICAGO – The Chicago area’s chief medical examiner starts her day with a numbers problem: how to manage three times the number of deaths as before the coronavirus pandemic with the same number of pathologists.

On a recent morning when The Associated Press got exclusive access to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office for the day, Dr. Ponni Arunkumar scanned a list of 62 new death cases. The average last year was 20 a day.

“We’ve never gone through anything like this,” she said of the workloads.

Forty of the 62 cases were coronavirus deaths. The oldest to die was a 105-year-old whose obituary described her as a White Sox fan who loved dancing. The youngest was a 53-year-old man who was jailed for allegedly blinding someone in one eye during a barroom brawl.

Medical examiners worldwide face similar challenges, and some are buckling under the emotional strain. But there was no sign of that at the Cook County facility, where employees seemed to be coping well with the historic surge in deaths. The pandemic has only deepened their sense of camaraderie, said the office’s director of fatality management, who oversees a temporary morgue set up off-site to handle the influx of corpses.

“We lean on each other,” Victoria Raspante said.

The 45-year-old Arunkumar has an air of calm about her. Soft-spoken and quick to smile, she has a knack for keeping those she supervises at ease.

According to figures updated Tuesday, her office has handled 5,323 cases already this year, 2,551 of them COVID-19 deaths since the first confirmed coronavirus death in mid-March. It had 6,254 deaths for all of 2019. Her 18 pathologists have sometimes worked 12-hour days, seven days a week.