Hennepin County Medical Examiner hires more pathologists as fentanyl deaths surge
Faced with a significant increase in fentanyl-related deaths, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office has hired more pathologists to keep up with the high demand.
In 2021, 354 people died of fentanyl poisoning and that number rose to 446 in 2022, according to the latest data from the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office. On average, in 2022, at least one person died of fentanyl poisoning each day in Hennepin County alone.
Hennepin County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Andrew Baker told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS in order to keep up with the high number of autopsies, he has hired additional forensic pathologists.
“We’ve added two more doctors in the last couple years and we’ve gotten permission to add yet another one,” said Baker.
Baker told KSTP the significant increase in overdose deaths, led by a big jump in fentanyl cases, has been challenging for his office and staff.
“When I took over this job 20 years ago, we had four pathologists doing about 600 autopsies a year,” said Baker. “And now we’re more than 1,500 in any given year and more percentages of those are the drug-related fatalities.”
And, Baker said, there is a need to get autopsies done as soon as possible to assist law enforcement when investigators are searching for possible suspects in overdose deaths.
“I would hate to see the criminal justice system, you know, come to a grinding halt on these cases, because your medical examiner, or coroner’s office, wasn’t doing autopsies in some of these cases,” said Baker.
Josh Gretz lost his brother Jason to fentanyl in 2012 and he told KSTP his 17-year-old daughter Zelaya Olivia Ebanks also died of fentanyl poisoning in 2021.
“It’s brutal. What it does to you and how you feel about things and there are some days where you’re just kind of so numb,” said Gretz.
He and his wife started a nonprofit organization, with a website called Familiesfightingfentanyl.org, which is designed to share stories and warn families about the dangers of even a small amount of fentanyl.
“As a dad, I am just sitting here navigating the emotions. My wife, she’s been, at points, bedridden and depressed,” said Gretz. “We think she only had half pill and that’s all it took.”