Cook County Medical Examiner Handled Record Number Of Deaths In 2020

COVID-19 biohazard tag
In this photo from May 2020, an orange biohazard tag hangs from a body bag in an isolated refrigerated unit set aside for bodies infected with coronavirus at the Cook County morgue in Chicago. COVID-19 deaths accounted for more than half of the record 16,000 cases handled by the Cook County Medical Examiner in 2020. Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press
COVID-19 biohazard tag
In this photo from May 2020, an orange biohazard tag hangs from a body bag in an isolated refrigerated unit set aside for bodies infected with coronavirus at the Cook County morgue in Chicago. COVID-19 deaths accounted for more than half of the record 16,000 cases handled by the Cook County Medical Examiner in 2020. Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press

Cook County Medical Examiner Handled Record Number Of Deaths In 2020

The Cook County Medical Examiner’s office says it handled a record number of death cases in 2020, with COVID-19, gun violence and other factors taking a disproportionate toll on African Americans.

The office handled 16,049 death cases last year – more than double what it handles in an average year, and breaking the previous 1977 record of 10,654 cases. In a Friday news release, the office also reported a record-high number of gun-related murders last year, at 875.

The county medical examiner does not investigate all deaths that happen in Cook County. It’s charged with determining the cause of death in certain cases, such as murders, suicides, accidents, and when someone dies of a disease that is a threat to public health.

The novel coronavirus pandemic accounted for much of the huge uptick in cases handled by the county medical examiner last year. More than half of its caseload – 8,192 deaths – were due to COVID-19.

In another grim milestone, Cook County is reporting a record number of opioid overdose deaths in 2020, with preliminary data confirming 1,599. The medical examiner’s office says it’s still waiting for results on hundreds of toxicology tests, and it expects the final 2020 tally to surpass 2,000 such overdose deaths.

In several categories, African Americans in Cook County died in disproportionate numbers last year.

Of the nearly 1,000 homicides handled by the office, Black people were the victims in 78% of them, even though they make up less than 24% of Cook County’s population. Latinos accounted for about 16% of murder victims, and account for more than a quarter of the county’s population. More than 74% of murders took place in Chicago, and nearly nine out of ten victims were male.

The COVID-19 virus also has hit Black people disproportionately hard, and the pandemic has underscored long-standing disparities in the American health care system. The medical examiners office reports that nearly 50% of all coronavirus victims in Cook County last year were Black or Latino.

Of the record-breaking number of confirmed opioid overdose deaths last year, nearly half of the victims were Black, the medical examiner’s office said. And while overall suicide rates have not increased over 2019, the effect on African Americans here has spiked: Black people accounted for 94 of the 432 suicides in 2020 – a 65% increase from the previous year, when there were 57 Black suicide victims.

Alex Keefe is an editor on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Michael Puente is a reporter. Follow them on Twitter @MikePuenteNews and @akeefe.