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Ada County coroner facing major challenges as COVID cases surge

Ada County Coroner Dottie Owens says her staff is exhausted as they work in overflow spaces needed to keep up with COVID deaths.

BOISE, Idaho — The surge in Idaho COVID cases is creating major issues for crucial community services, just ask Ada County Coroner Dottie Owens. She says the heavy COVID caseload her office is dealing with comes with major consequences

“We are six months behind on pathology reports, which is very, very hard, it holds families up for insurance benefits,” Owens said. “Every single aspect, from administration to forensics to my investigations team, we are operating at capacity.”

In 2020, the Ada County Coroner's Office was forced to purchase a refrigerated truck to keep up with COVID deaths. Between that and another truck, the coroner’s office has space for about 90 bodies outside of their normal capacity. Now, they need that extra space more than ever.

“Our normal cooler is full, and our mass fatality trailer has five deceased in there,” Owens said.

Owens says her office feels heavy pressure from the COVID surge similar to how many frontline healthcare workers are being pushed to their limit.

"We're dealing with the exact same thing, we really are, and between our facility challenges and our staffing challenges, we're just really operating at capacity on all levels,” Owens said.

Like healthcare workers, Owens says her team continues to push through the best they can.

“We're here for families. We're here to make sure that we try to keep our community safe," Owens said. "We show up, we do the job, we go home and we do it all over tomorrow. We were discussing this internally this morning and everybody is just exhausted, why don't people believe this? Why don't they believe in this? At this point it is so frustrating when we're doing death notifications and we're on scene with these grieving families and we're hearing from spouses: why didn't we believe this? Why didn't we do something with this up front? What do you say, we're desperate.” 

On top of everything, Owens says they continue to get pushback from COVID deniers.

“I get a lot of pushback, I get told that we are making money off of COVID. I get told we're fear-mongering," Owens said. "I am telling you, at the end of the day, we're the ones that are laying eyes on these deceased individuals. We're the ones dealing with the grieving families.” 

Adding to the difficulty, the coroner’s office still has all the non-COVID deaths to deal with on top of the current COVID surge.

“What people forget is that not only are we doing the COVID [cases,] we're monitoring the pandemic piece, but we're also dealing with the suicides and the homicides and the children deaths, and we handle all of that. There's no benefit at all, for any of us,” Owens said.

Frustration is building for people like Owens who continue to work through COVID tragedies on a daily basis while others in the community spread the idea that things are fine.

“We see these families firsthand, we see these health care workers, we're talking to the hospitals funeral homes, it's just there's no end to it. I don't understand why people don't believe in this at this point. I just, I have no words," Owens said. "My staff is so frustrated, they're frustrated, and they're exhausted.”

Owens says earlier this summer the situation looked like it was improving as COVID deaths steadily decreased in our community. But that all changed in recent weeks.

“For a while, we were only seeing one a week, one or two or week, and then it gradually increased to two a day. And now we're getting multiple that are reported to us daily,” Owens said.

Recently, the Ada County Coroner's Office dispatched their smaller mobile trailer to help cover issues in another county. Owens knows that trailer is likely to see activation again soon.

“At any moment a region could get into trouble and we'd have to send it up there for them, or a hospital here, or somebody. So, we've got both trailers in our parking lot right now and we're going to hang on to them,” Owens said.

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