Coroner’s office sees body bag prices soar

MIAMI COUNTY — The impact of the coronavirus pandemic has touched nearly every facet of government and business — even the county coroner’s office.

Miami County Coroner Dr. William Ginn reviewed the challenges his office has encountered during the COVID-19 pandemic during a budget hearing with Miami County Commissioners on Tuesday. Commissioner Jack Evans was not present.

Ginn provided the commissioners statistics of what kind of cases his office has handled so far this year. Upon budget review, one budget item has significantly increased in price due to nationwide demand — body bags.

“The big issue for our budget has been our body bag situation,” Dr. Ginn said. Ginn said David Cron of the Cron Mortuary Service supplied the coroner’s office with the body bags, but was unable to get the bags due to the onset of the pandemic. Ginn said the coroner’s office had a surplus of 50 bags to help supply the livery service for Miami County death cases and the price of the mortuary service reduced their price by $25 to reflect the county’s supply to the business.

“Literally there were no body bags,” he said. “Amazon.com had no body bags. You could not find body bags. Come to find out the federal government had purchased a very large amount of body bags, creating a shortage.”

Ginn said he’s been researching suppliers and found the body bag price has soared due to demand. Ginn said bags were as high as $80 per bag, but has dropped down to $48 and as low as $14 — the same bag that used to cost around $9 per bag.

“This is not a real sophisticated item. It’s a plastic bag with a zipper on it and handles for carrying,” he said. Ginn said he hopes to find a supplier in the $15-20 per bag range. Commissioner Greg Simmons asked if CARES Act funds could help purchase the bags. Commission clerk Leigh Williams said the funds could offset the difference in price due to the connection to COVID-19.

Ginn said the county’s supply is sufficient through the end of the year and hopes to procure bags with the better quality handles, which aid in transportation. Ginn asked commissioners if he should try to accumulate a surplus to which Mercer said a year and a half worth’s of bags should give the office an ample supply. Ginn’s budget of $2,500 reflected the increased costs and for the bags.

Ginn also reported he surveyed the county’s funeral home storage capacity of bodies. Ginn said he was “shocked” to find that among the county’s funeral homes there’s storage for up to 17 bodies. Ginn said when 20 deaths a day were first projected at the beginning of the pandemic, he was trying to figure out how to handle the volume. Ginn noted a funeral home could possibly embalm up to two bodies a day and cremation services could handle three or four a day.

Ginn said back resources include the Montgomery County coroner’s office’s refrigerated trucks as well as a state-wide funeral home organization that could assist in times of mass casualties if the county were to incur a “back-up” of deceased residents.

Ginn said the office averages about 50 autopsies per year. Ginn said Miami County has approximately 240 deaths per year. Natural causes are 70 percent (mostly cardiovascular-related) of deaths and 30 percent of unnatural deaths consist of drug overdoses, suicides, and accidents.

Dr. Ginn noted that not every COVID-19 death is coroner related. Miami County has recorded 56 deaths to date. Yet, Dr. Ginn said he’s had 11-12 COVID-19 related investigations.

“There’s been some talk about being kind of induced or coerced to change the diagnosis to match the COVID-19 and I’ve had one of those come in the last two to three weeks,” Ginn said. Ginn explained he had a woman in her 90s with cardiovascular symptoms who lived in a nursing home. She was admitted to a local hospital where she subsequently died from those health factors. After her death, she was found to be positive for COVID-19, but Ginn signed her cause of death to cardiovascular issues. Ginn said he received a letter from the Ohio Department of Health stating he could change the cause of death to COVID-19 positive, but if he was to keep his initial cause of death he needed to write a letter to the state health department to explain why he didn’t want to make the change.

“So they were making it a little more uncomfortable for me to disagree with it,” Ginn said.

Ginn said overdoses are on the rise again, more related to heroin and methamphetamine, and away from fentanyl. Ginn said the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office charges the county $1,600 per autopsy, which will remain the same in 2021, but to expect a “significant increase” in 2022, although the exact figure was not provided to Ginn. Ginn estimated the cost to be around $2,000 per autopsy. Transport to the Montgomery County office fee is around $150.

The coroner’s office projects to spend $100,000 on autopsy services in 2020 with $150,000 in the budget. The budget was increased due to the 2017 opioid epidemic and the increase in drug-related deaths. The office has spent around $70,000 so far this year for autopsies.