Cook County Medical Examiner details challenges facing her office during pandemic

WGN Investigates

CHICAGO — When it comes to coronavirus in Illinois, the numbers of deaths are updated every day.

As the numbers continue to rise, perhaps the biggest responsibility at this end point of the illness lies with the Cook County Medical Examiner. The medical examiner’s offices determines the cause of death and looks for any underlying symptoms.  At the same time, it must protect its own staff members. And more than anything, make sure the victims are treated with dignity.  

The numbers are so high, the M.E.’s office created what it calls a “surge center,” a 66,000-square foot warehouse to act as a makeshift morgue.

Dr. Ponni Arunkumar is the Cook County Medical Examiner. She said her 107 person staff usually deals with 20 cases a day. But now with pandemic, they are handling 90 cases a day.

 “We tell staff we need to do our job so that we can handle this increase load,” she said. “We can help each other to get through this process by talking to each other, as long as we keep in our mind that we need to determine cause and manner of death. It makes our work a little bit easier.”

Throughout the crisis, Arunkumar said it is important to remember that each person has a family. Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and children are left behind.

“We need to treat them as if they are our loved ones,” she said. “To help go through this increasing case load and to help the families and to help society.”

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