Cook County medical examiner’s office faces unprecedented caseload during pandemic

Coronavirus

CHICAGO — Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle acknowledged on Wednesday the strain the coronavirus pandemic has taken on the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office while defending her veto of a board resolution.

On Tuesday, Preckwinkle vetoed a plan to share with 911 dispatchers the addresses of suburban individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19. It was the first time in her 10-year history as chief executive that she used that power.

The Cook County Board voted narrowly in favor of a recommendation to continue the practice of sharing sensitive information with paramedics.

“The people who know more than I do about public health are leaders in the Cook County Department of Public Health. And they’ve been quite clear from the very beginning that this is bad public policy.”

It’s an issue that weighs protecting first responders versus the privacy and civil liberties of private individuals.

“One could imagine that releasing this kind of information to first responders could cause a significant degree of concern among those communities and make them suspicious or fearful of sharing the honest information we need to perform our contact tracing work,” said Dr. Kiran Joshi, Cook County Senior Medical Officer.

Preckwinkle said during a news conference Wednesday that in the last three months, Cook County has seen more deaths than 2019 alone. That figure may be combined with coronavirus cases, homicides and opioid deaths.

“We’re used to dealing with death here, it’s our life’s work,” said Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, Cook County Chief Medical Examiner. “The medical examiner’s workload has tripled, in some days quadrupled. There are days when forensic pathologists have had to review more than 100 case files in order to keep up with the death toll this virus has brought.

While the pandemic has brought challenges to nearly every aspect of life, the medical examiner’s office is working around the clock to keep up with the virus.

“Some have worked 16-hour shifts,” said Preckwinkle. “Some have worked seven days a week for weeks on end.”

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