Another grim milestone was addressed today by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Cook County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Ponni Arunkumar. The Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office surpassed 10,000 cases handled in 2020 early Monday morning. The Office handled 6,274 cases in all of 2019.
This milestone comes as Cook County is coping with more than 5,000 COVID-19 deaths, 282 suicide deaths, 1,400 opioid-related deaths and close to 600 homicides so far this year.
“This caseload is absolutely unprecedented,” said President Preckwinkle. “Our communities of color are still the hardest hit. The majority of these residents lived in underserved and under-resourced neighborhoods. These are residents who have less access to healthy foods, safe streets and quality healthcare.”
According to data from the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office, nearly 43 percent of all cases handled this year are African American. Approximately 33 percent of those who succumb to coronavirus are Black and more members of the Black community have committed suicide in Cook County this year than in all of 2019. Around half of those who’ve died of an opioid overdose are Black as well and three quarters of homicides in Cook County are committed against the Black community. When Latinx deaths are factored in, almost 94 percent of homicides are committed against people of color in Cook County this year.
“While COVID-19 deaths make up approximately half of the Medical Examiner’s Office cases for the year, deaths in other categories are soaring as well,” said Dr. Arunkumar. "We are seeing extraordinary numbers of opioid overdoses. We estimate we have already exceeded last year’s total by more than 100. If the current trend continues, we could see as many or even more than 2,000 cases this year.”
Dr. Arunkumar says homicide and suicide deaths are also increasing at an alarming rate. The County is dangerously close to reaching similar homicide levels documented in 2016, a year that surpassed 900. There have been 63 suicides in the Black community so far this year, exceeding the total for all of 2019 with more than four months left in the year.
There have been three years where the Medical Examiner’s caseload eclipsed 10,000 - 1977, 1978 and 1979. In 1977, the Office recorded its highest number of cases for the entire year totaling 10,654.
According to Dr. Arunkumar, the jurisdiction of the Office in the 1970s was broader and encompassed many more natural deaths that required signed death certificates. Today, the scope of the Office is more focused.
“We keep comparing 2020 to previous years, but the truth is, there is no comparison,” said Dr. Arunkumar. “If for the remainder of 2020 the caseload stabilized to similar levels from the past several years, the County would still double last year’s case count.”
Dr. Arunkumar encouraged professionals in public health, healthcare, law enforcement and journalists to continue to study the data the Office collects. The goal is to find patterns that could lead to solutions to the challenges Cook County faces. The public can access data from the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office on the case archive.
“As a community, we must do better. These aren’t just names on a page – these are our neighbors, our friends, our family members,” said President Preckwinkle.