Demand for autopsies in Manitoba has risen 20 per cent over the past two years as a combined result of the COVID-19 pandemic, a spike in violent crime and rising numbers of fatal overdoses.
Forensic pathologists in Manitoba now conduct about 1,800 autopsies a year, up from 1,500 annually two years ago, Manitoba Shared Health said in a statement.
This is partly because of the pandemic, as more people are dying at home instead of in hospitals and therefore require forensic investigations to determine the cause of death, Shared Health said.
A rise in drug-related deaths is also fuelling the demand for autopsies, the provincial health organization said, as is “a higher incidence rate of police cases in recent months, which are prioritized over other autopsies.”
A record 407 Manitobans died of overdoses or other drug-related causes in 2021, the province disclosed earlier in April.
The rise in demand has exacerbated a backlog in conducting autopsies, Shared Health added, noting staff absences due to COVID-19 infections and vacations are also a factor in delays that will take two to three weeks to clear.
Grieving families left waiting
The delay in notifying grieving family members about the cause of death can be far longer, especially for people who died of fatal overdoses, said Arlene Last-Kolb, founder of Overdose Awareness Manitoba and a board member of the national advocacy group Moms Stop The Harm.
“Families are waiting anywhere from a year to a year and a half,” said Last-Kolb, who lost her own son to an overdose in 2014 and speaks on behalf of other grieving parents.
“We might have an idea that a child or loved one has passed from an overdose, but we won’t know for certain what caused that overdose.”
Last-Kolb said the timely performance of autopsies is not just important for the purpose of providing families with closure. The province needs to know how many overdoses are occurring in order to formulate the proper policy response, she said.
Her group has been lobbying the province to ensure people who use non-medical drugs have access to a safe supply, free of highly toxic chemicals such as fentanyl.
Shared Health said it has hired two more forensic pathologists to help draw down the autopsy backlog — one to fill a vacant position and the other to bring the total complement up by one position, to seven pathologists in total.
The province has also hired a new autopsy technical assistant and is training another, Shared Health said.