(Photo: Wisconsin National Guard members train to provide assistance to the Dane County Medical Examiner’s office. C/o Wisconsin National Guard)
The Dane County Medical Examiner’s Office conducts death investigations and autopsies on the recently deceased. Case investigators aid in police investigations, wrongful death cases and insurance claims. The office has a full-time staff of 18 people.
For about four years, the Dane County Medical Examiner’s Office has also handled death investigations for several other counties. That includes our neighbor to the southwest, Rock County, but also areas around Green Bay: Brown, Oconto, and Door Counties.
After signing contracts with those counties in 2016, the office saw a 70 percent spike in death investigation cases the following year, according to reporting from the Wisconsin State Journal. The increased caseload has been further exacerbated by a nationwide shortage of trained pathologists.
Amidst those conditions, those who deal with the dead are confronting a new problem: how to continue working during a pandemic.
Barry Irmen is Director of Operations at the Dane County Medical Examiner’s office. He says the coronavirus hasn’t caused a surge in the number of bodies his office is handling. He attributes that to the Safer-at-Home Order and the measures Wisconsin has taken to flatten the curve.
“If the stay-at-home order hadn’t been issued and people would have continued as they had before, I think we would have seen a larger surge in our office. We’ve been fortunate in that we haven’t seen a tremendous surge in the amount of deaths,” says Irmen.
But, the Medical Examiner’s Office workload has still increased in the past few months. That’s because they’re taking safety precautions when handling the recently deceased, or “decedents.”
And, they’re treating every decedent as if they could be a carrier of COVID-19, since the virus can continue to live on skin after a victim has died. Even those who didn’t have symptoms could be carriers of COVID-19 and can pass the disease on.
Irmen says this creates a difficult situation for investigators who examine bodies at the scene of the death. The investigators also have to find a way to move the body without causing it to exhale COVID-contaminated particles.
“The risk from a decedent is much, much less than talking to a live person. In many of our scene investigations, you can’t get good social distancing. You can’t get six feet from the people you’re talking to. A body that’s a decedent is a lower risk, until you start to manipulate that body. That causes change in the lungs, when you move the body and cause an exhalation just by manipulation.”
Irmen says the Medical Examiner’s office also has to take precautions during autopsies. By operating on a decedent, the physicians and investigators risk releasing COVID-contaminated particles into the surrounding air.
The physicians can administer a post-mortem COVID test before the autopsy, but then they have to wait for the results to come back, which can take days.
Now, the Dane County Medical Examiner’s Office is getting help from the Wisconsin National Guard.
Last month, the 115th Fighter Wing, based out of Truax Field, mobilized to help the officer in the handling of deceased persons. The Fatality Search and Recovery Team, or FSRT, is typically deployed during environmental disasters, and this is FSRT’s first deployed operation.
Tech Sergeant Samuel Keizer is one of the 17 Guard members who have been deployed to assist the county’s medical examiner. Keizer says they didn’t expect their first mission to come up as a global pandemic.
“The way that we trained is focused on natural disasters. We train for a lot of chemical and biological events. Something as simple as a chemical plant that springs a leak. I would have never guessed we’d be dealing with a pandemic of this scope… This is very much a new thing for everyone involved, especially for the 115th Fighter Wing,” says Keizer.
The FSRT team has been transporting the bodies of the deceased. The process takes special training and preparation, according to Tech Sgt. Angela Krepline. She says the team of roughly 17 airmen and soldiers are trained in the handling of decedents, and are actively working to assist in any calls.
The county has still increased the morgue’s storage capacity. According to Irmen, the move is a preventative measure for a potential case increase this fall.
“I think we’re being as cautiously optimistic as we can be, but still realizing that it’s very likely that there’ll be a second wave. And I’m not quite sure we’re through the wave we have now,” says Irmen.