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Milwaukee Co. ME says homicides projected to increase 38 percent in 2020 from last year

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MILWAUKEE COUNTY, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Between an increase in homicides and overdoses, and a number of virus-related challenges, it has been a busy year for staff at the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Chief Medical Examiner Brian Peterson said his office is on track to perform an estimated 2,037 autopsies this year, compared to 1,786 last year. 

"Our cooler can hold perhaps 30 bodies at one time, and right now, we're full all the time," Peterson said.

Most of the autopsies his staff members perform are from Milwaukee County, but about 600 autopsies this year are private or referrals from other counties. He said the office is currently well staffed, and it’s not a concern right now that the office will lose its accreditation because staff are performing too many autopsies.

About a third of the increase in autopsies this year is overdoses and homicides. His latest data on autopsies shows there have been 82 homicides so far this year. There will be an estimated 179 homicides by the end of 2020, which is a 37.7 percent increase from the 130 homicides in 2019. Summer also tends to see larger numbers of homicides.

"It just seems every year that when it starts getting really hot -- in the 90s -- then tempers flare and homicides go up," Peterson said.

To explain the increases in homicides, he pointed to several factors, including multiple shootings this year where multiple people died. For example, in February, a gunman opened fire at Molson Coors, killing five coworkers. In April, Christopher Stokes was charged with killing five family members near 12th and Hadley.

"Homicides tend to go to the front of the line no matter what else is happening that day," Peterson said.

As far as overdoses go, his office is seeing dozens more fentanyl-related deaths, increases in meth cases and even new kinds of drugs.

"It seems like the drug dealers, the drug suppliers are always coming up with new things and people seem always willing to try them," Peterson said.

He said the other two-thirds of the increase in autopsies is natural deaths that are unrelated to COVID-19.

"You've got sick people at home. Maybe they're afraid to go seek medical care. Maybe they don't want to do the video medical care ... so they pass away at home, and it's hot, and they're alone. Within a few days, you're getting neighbors calling about odor complaints, and that's how we find out about them," Peterson said.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Peterson limited the amount of staff members who could be in the office for several weeks. However, they're back to normal staff now.

The pandemic has also kept Peterson busy. He personally has signed almost 400 COVID-19 related death certificates.

He said unlike medical professionals in other parts of the country, he has not seen otherwise healthy young people die from the virus. 

"For a while, the youngest I had was 35 (years old), but he weighed over 500 lbs, and that by itself is a major health risk. I had a young man who was 21 (years old) with COVID, but he had leukemia.

He said a vast majority of the deaths have been elderly people of around 70 years old or older who typically have comorbidities.

"Diabetes, heart failure and dementia -- those are kind of the big three that seem to lead to death by COVID. So you kind of wonder: are they dying with it -- or of it? And I think in a lot of these cases, it's just the last thing. It's the last straw," Peterson said.

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