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Overdoses crowd Manatee morgue

BRADENTON — Manatee County's morgue has been out of space since July, and the Medical Examiner's Office is performing a record number of autopsies as the heroin and fentanyl epidemic spirals out of control — again.

In July, the Medical Examiner's Office in the 12th District that includes Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties performed a record 110 autopsies. Of those, 62 were performed in Manatee County.

The overdose spike continued into August, and a total of 105 autopsies were performed in the district, of which 64 were in Manatee County.

A major challenge in Manatee County: The medical examiner's facility is just not big enough with a morgue that has space for only 18 bodies.

"While this has happened rarely in the past — that we just flat out ran out of space for bodies — over the last two months, that has been almost the normal state where we were so full that we had to use other facilities at some cost to store bodies for us," Chief Medical Examiner Russell Vega told the Bradenton Herald. "Our body transport company has body storage capacity, and they were storing some bodies for us."

Vega said that allows them to avoid the undesirable alternatives: putting bodies on the floor or stacking bodies up.

"So we have had the two busiest months that we have ever had back-to-back in July and August, and it was mostly the drug overdose cases," Vega said.

Law enforcement has also seen an increase in the number of overdoses they have had to respond to this summer.

The Manatee County Sheriff's Office has responded to 733 suspected overdoses between January and August. More than two-thirds of those suspected overdoses occurred in July and August, however.

Early this year, overdoses had dramatically decreased, which the Sheriff's Office and other local law enforcement agencies believed was a result of the arrests of 15 people including who they believed was the top dealer in the area after an 18-month investigation.