High murder rate, COVID-19 contribute to 'very busy' medical examiner’s office

The staff at the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office is very busy right now, according to a spokesperson for the Institute of Forensic Sciences. She described the workload as leaving some staff frazzled, but new data released by the IFS shows COVID-19 only has a small part to play in that story.

“We’ve had quite a few deaths,” said Michele Arnold, spokesperson for Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences.

Just under 3,000 deaths have been processed in Harris County so far this year by the Harris County IFS, according to new data shared with FOX 26. Of those, 98 of them were COVID-19 related.

It’s unclear why this data contradicts data reported by Harris County Public health showing 526 deaths related to COVID-19. 

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“We’ve had 20% more homicides as opposed to our five-year average,” said Arnold.

The data shows 297 homicides and 276 suicides so far in the first six-and-a-half months of 2020.

Heart disease has been one of the biggest killers in the first half of 2020. The data shows 654 of the deaths in Harris County were related to atherosclerosis, which is a build-up of cholesterol plaque in the walls of arteries.

The medical examiner’s office prepared for the possibility of a surge scenario should more people die from COVID-19, but so far, that’s not the case, said Arnold.

“I would not describe our situation as a surge—no,” said Arnold, adding the IFS is prepared should a surge scenario present itself.

A large number of deaths the first week in July at HCA Houston Healthcare Northwest led them to bring out a refrigerator for bodies, which has remained on-site unused since then, a spokesperson told FOX 26, adding the surge in deaths was not due to COVID-19.

When it comes to COVID-19 deaths, a Baylor St. Luke’s hospital spokesperson told FOX 26 they’ve had a refrigerator truck for bodies on-site since the pandemic was announced in March, but it has remained unused.


Houston’s health authority Dr. David Persse presented a graph Friday showing Houston’s death rate from COVID-19 is considerably lower than other cities, but he presented another chart showing Houston is in the top five in the nation for cases per 100,000 population.

Dr. Persse said as of Friday there are about 700 people fighting for their lives in ICU. He added that 80% of people who catch COVID-19 will have little to no symptoms.