The King County Medical Examiner's Office is in danger of losing its accreditation.
This is because of a problem KIRO 7 first told you about last week: Washington State Patrol’s toxicology lab is dealing with a growing backlog of blood to process, and it's taking months to get out results.
KIRO 7’s Deedee Sun told you how the problem is impacting prosecutors’ ability to prosecute DUI suspects. The problem is impacting medical examiner offices too.
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“Their autopsies were performed today,” said Dr. Nicole Yarid, the King County associate medical examiner, referring to a tray of vials filled with people’s blood, urine and fluid from the eyes.
After someone dies, in some cases that person's blood must go from the medical examiner's office to the Washington State Patrol's toxicology lab.
“In order to sign off for that official cause of death report, we really need the tox lab,” Yarid said.
But the tox lab is dealing with a growing backlog of untested blood - about 6,000 cases.
“It takes a really, really long time to get the toxicology results back and it's really hard to talk to families when they're still waiting and waiting for months to get the final result,” Yarid said.
The King County ME’s office ends up waiting five to six months.
The delay not only forces families to wait for closure and causes complications with their insurance; it also means the ME’s office is at risk of losing its accreditation.
“Our office has been accredited for 40 years, the longest continuous accredited office in the country. We [are] very afraid our accreditation is in jeopardy because of the delays in toxicology,” said Dr. Richard Harruff, King County’s chief medical examiner.
King County deputy prosecutor Amy Freedheim said right now, the King County ME’s office is considered one of the best.
“It’s the No. 1 ME’s office in the country,” Freedheim said.
But she said losing accreditation means the ME’s “cause of death” rulings could carry less weight in court.
“It undermines your feeling there's integrity in the process,” Freedheim said. “To lose accreditation is really pretty alarming.”
The delay is also impacting the role of the ME’s office to help law enforcement track overdose deaths – specifically, the alarming spike in fentanyl cases.
“It does them no good to have knowledge of a fatal overdose months later,” Harruff said.
The medical examiner’s office is turning to technology to circumvent the tox lab and deal with some of those challenges.
“Probably the most exciting tool is the TruNarc, which involves basically shining a laser at drugs,” Yarid said. The office got the $25,000 tool from the Washing State Department of Health in June.
Instead of relying on the traditional method of identifying drugs - opening a bag up and mixing it with chemicals - the laser can test through the bag.
“It’s much safer to use because you don’t have to remove anything out of the bag,” Yarid said.
The device quickly identified a bag of white powder as cocaine and a pill with fentanyl as its active ingredient.
While the new tech helps with real-time drug tracking, it does not make an impact on the long wait to get a final death report.
The ME’s office said the bottom line is the state’s toxicology lab must be funded.
KIRO 7’s Deedee Sun reached out to Gov. Jay Inslee’s office for comment. The Governor’s Forensic Investigations Council has previously worked with Washington State Patrol to help secure funding for the lab.
A spokesperson for Inslee said:
“We are well aware of this issue and our staff has been working closely with the State Patrol to determine what is needed to get a good handle on this issue and how we will fund that need. Both the State Patrol and the governor's office are currently reviewing budget priorities. The governor's budget will be rolled out in December.”
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