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U.S. Medical Examiner/Coroner capability to handle highly infectious decedents

Updated: Mar 28, 2023

In the United States of America, Medical Examiners and Coroners (ME/Cs) investigate approximately 20% of all deaths. Unexpected deaths, such as those occurring due to a deceased person under investigation for a highly infectious disease, are likely to fall under ME/C jurisdiction, thereby placing the ME/C and other morgue personnel at increased risk of contracting an occupationally acquired infection. This survey of U.S. ME/Cs′ capabilities to address highly infectious decedents aimed to determine opportunities for improvement at ME/C facilities serving a state or metropolitan area. Data for this study was gathered via an electronic survey. Of the 177 electronic surveys that were distributed, the overall response rate was N = 108 (61%), with 99 of those 108 respondents completing all the questions within the survey. At least one ME/C responded from 47 of 50 states, and the District of Columbia. Select results were: less than half of respondents (44%) stated that their office had been involved in handling a suspected or confirmed highly infectious remains case and responses indicated medical examiners. Additionally, ME/C altered their personal protective equipment based on suspected versus confirmed highly infectious remains rather than taking an all-hazards approach. Standard operating procedures or guidelines should be updated to take an all-hazards approach, best-practices on handling highly infectious remains could be integrated into a standardized education, and evidence-based information on appropriate personal protective equipment selection could be incorporated into a widely disseminated learning module for addressing suspected or confirmed highly infectious remains, as those areas were revealed to be currently lacking.

Key points

  1. U.S. Medical Examiners/Coroners play a critical role in death investigation, yet their capabilities to address highly infectious remains are unknown.

  2. Medical Examiners/Coroners are at greater risk for an occupationally-acquired infection.

  3. This survey, with respondents from nearly every U.S. state, revealed current levels of Medical Examiner/Coroner training and education to address suspected or confirmed highly infectious remains.

  4. Questions, and thereby results, focus on permissible autopsy procedures, personal protective equipment, and biosafety-level facility capabilities.

  5. Medical Examiners/Coroners could benefit from updates to standard operating procedures and standardized education on handling suspected or highly infectious remains that taken an all-hazards approach.



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