Wake County is preparing to take over the storage of bodies early this summer, as a two-decade-plus informal agreement between the county and Office of Chief Medical Examiner is set to end.
"The medical examiner system across all of NC has seen a dramatic increase in caseload over the last several years. OCME has been working for more than a year with Wake County to support their need to develop Wake County decedent storage as established by statute. N.C. Gen. Stat. 130A-381 requires each of our 100 counties, including Wake County, to provide or contract for an appropriate facility for the examination and storage of bodies under Medical Examiner jurisdiction," wrote Bailey Pennington, a spokesperson for NCDHHS, in response to an information request.
As part of a temporary solution, Wake County will use refrigerated shipping containers.
"We are just a temporary storage facility until they do the autopsies and those who don't require autopsy we can hold until funeral homes retrieve the bodies from us," said Joshua Creighton, the Director of Emergency Management for Wake County.
The use of refrigerated shipping containers to store bodies was common during the course of the pandemic, as jurisdictions dealt with a sharp rise in deaths over a short period of time. Creighton said the department has spoken with officials in New York, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia to learn about their experiences.
"Our containers are regulated. They have alarms on them. We also have them hooked up to alarm systems, letting us know if the power goes out or if it goes out of the temperature range. So that will be where, if anything, goes awry. There's also tight security around the area with gated and keyed access to get into the facility, and it will be restricted to our personnel," Creighton explained.
The refrigerated shipping containers are being constructed, with Creighton said the aim is to have them in use beginning July 1st. Until then, there will be no change in how bodies are handled. The temporary solution is set to be in effect for five years, with future plans still being determined.
"We are undertaking a study this fall that will examine what is the best solution for Wake County moving forward in concert with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner," Creighton said.
Creighton attributed the increasing deaths in Wake County to three factors: population growth, aging demographics, and opioid overdoses.
"In 2019 we had six (opioid) deaths per hundred thousand population. Last year, which is in 2022, of the last numbers we have that number increased to 19 per 100,000 of opioid deaths here in Wake County," said Creighton.
"It's progressively going from, you know, (people in their) the early twenties, mid-twenties down to teenagers," said Will Stephenson of Apex.
In the past five years, two of Stephenson's sons have died of opioid overdoses involving fentanyl - 27-year-old Parker in May 2018, and 34-year-old William last January.
"Every life is so important and people need to wake up," said Stephenson.
According to NCDHHS, 77% of overdose deaths in 2021 likely involved fentanyl.
"All it takes is one time. And just a very small dose. And a lot of times these kids or young adults, they don't know what they're taking," said Stephenson, who supports more mental health facilities in an effort to address the issue.
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