Franklin County to accept $250K in COVID relief for coroner pathology services, equipment

[The Columbus Dispatch] Franklin County to accept $250K in COVID relief for coroner pathology services, equipment

Franklin County to accept $250K in COVID relief for coroner pathology services, equipment

Franklin County commissioners are expected to formally accept nearly $250,000 in federal COVID-19 relief funds on Tuesday to pay for toxicology equipment and forensic pathologists for the coroner's office amid a nationwide shortage, a forthcoming operational study of the office and the coroner's pending departure.

The resolution authorizes the Franklin County Coroner's Office to accept $249,373.20 in American Rescue Plan Act funds through the Ohio Office of Criminal Justice Services "to purchase forensic toxicology automated solid phase extraction processors and fund forensic pathology personnel costs," according to a memo from Daniel Baker, the county's chief toxicologist.

Although the details provided to commissioners don't specify a breakdown, about $207,000, or about 83%, of the funds would go toward the purchase of three automated toxicology sample processors, according to the county's grant application. The remaining $42,000, or about 17%, would go toward funding a temporary forensic pathologist at $77.78 an hour for 540 hours.

The Dispatch obtained the information Friday through a public records request to the state after a county coroner's office spokesperson was unable Thursday to provide more details.

Biotage Extrahera Automated Toxicology Sample Processors are a new technology that "improve efficiency and reduce or eliminate backlogged cases," according to the county's application. "The automated sample processors will enable forensic toxicologists to spend less time and labor at the laboratory bench, increase case sample throughput, and permit saved time and labor to be focused on data processing and result entry."

Forensic toxicology generally refers to the study of "harmful effects that chemicals, substances, or situations, can have on people, animals, and the environment," according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. In death investigations, it often refers to testing a body for drugs and/or alcohol.

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A commissioners spokesperson noted Thursday that the funds, once commissioners accept them, would come from the state's allocation of COVID relief funds, not the county's $256 million in federal COVID funds.

The funding came from Gov. Mike DeWine's Ohio Crime Lab Efficiency Program, which granted the state's 14 certified crime labs a combined $10 million "to reduce and eliminate backlogs, increase overall lab efficiency, and decrease evidence processing time," the governor's office announced April 27.

As part of the funding, Franklin County was granted $250,000 "to contract with a forensic pathologist to assist in completing backlogged cases and for a new automated sample processing technology to improve throughput efficiency and eliminate backlogged forensic toxicology cases," according to the governor's office.

Among the 13 other beneficiaries that garnered funding were the following central Ohio agencies:

Central Ohio Regional Crime Laboratory: $250,000 for employee training, technology to prioritize cases and overtime costsColumbus Police Crime Laboratory: $1 million to buy more software and technology to test more DNA and ballistic samples at onceOhio Division of the State Fire Marshal Forensic Lab: $250,000 for new forensic computers with more processing powerOhio State Highway Patrol Crime Laboratory: $1.25 million to replace out-of-date drug-testing equipment and to outsource some chemistry cases

According to an agreement with the state Office of Criminal Justice Services, Franklin County's grant goes back to Feb. 1, around the time four of the county's five forensic pathologists resigned, and continues through Dec. 31, 2023.

As of Feb. 1, the county had 1,111 backlogged pathology cases, after the number of cases almost tripled from 215 in 2019 to 621 in two years, according to its grant application. The grant would pay for a temporary pathologist to handle about 120 of those cases. The county also had 31 backlogged toxicology cases, nearly doubling from 1,243 cases in 2019 to 2,193 in two years.

A recent investigation by The Dispatch showed that during the first 10 months of 2022, the county authorized spending $3.2 million in taxpayer money to deal with the staffing shortage, as it worked to fill the vacant positions at salaries tens of thousands of dollars higher than it previously offered.

In an Oct. 25 announcement that she plans to retire Nov. 11, Franklin County Coroner Anahi Ortiz said the office has a nearly full staff of six fulltime pathologists and a pathology assistant.

As a result, the time it takes officials to complete autopsy reports went from four to six months at the beginning of 2022 to now taking eight to 10 weeks, with some being done in as little as five to six weeks, Ortiz said previously.

Through an office spokesperson, Ortiz declined a request last week from The Dispatch for an interview about her eight-year tenure as the county's official death investigator.

Meanwhile, the county is spending $115,500 for Las Vegas-based Forensic Pathology Services LLC to study office operations. The study will assess organizational structure, efficiency, effectiveness, transparency, decision making and accountability; whether current resources meet the office's needs and its leaders have the skills need to meet its goals; interview staff and shadow some of them; and recommend any staffing changes to boost effectiveness.