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Rising death rates show need for new Lyco coroner facilities

WILLIAMSPORT — Lycoming County officials agree that the time for finding new facilities for work done by the county coroner is long overdue.

And rising death rates from drug overdoses, suicides and even COVID-19 are only making the issue more urgent.

“We are near capacity out there for morgue space,” Coroner Charles Kiessling said of the site at the Williamsport Regional Medical Center.

The cramped morgue is only part of the problem, however.

Kiessling noted that among the principal concerns are inadequate decontamination capabilities and space for vehicles.

The work done by coroner employees exposes them to bodily fluids. Without proper decontamination, they face potential infections.

To wash contaminants from vehicles, it’s often necessary to go to used car washes, Kiessling noted. It’s not uncommon for employees to take clothing and other items home to be decontaminated.

“Now more than ever, with the COVID-19 concerns, we don’t know what we are getting ourselves into,” he said.

County commissioners say they have been looking at a new site for the coroner and in fact may now be close to a deal on an undisclosed site.

“It’s not a secret that we have tried to look at other locations,” Commissioner Rick Mirabito said.

He said any possible budget constraints will certainly be weighed in solving the issue.

One solution to the problem is perhaps locating different county functions in one building to save money.

Commissioner Scott Metzger said a possible plan is for the coroner to share a building site with the offices of District Judge Christian Frey, as well as county operations for central processing and supervised bail.

Negotiations, he said, have been under way with the owner of a building.

“It’s a bit premature to say we have a definitive site,” Mirabito said. “We are trying to solve multiple problems here.”

Kiessling said all options “are still on the table.”

The coroner said he doesn’t see the problem becoming any less pressing.

He noted that bodies arriving at the morgue often remain after no family members come forward to claim them.

“This year has been a record year for unclaimed individuals,” Kiessling said.

The county, he added, has four hospitals and by next year will add another one with the Geisinger site near Muncy, which could create more work for the coroner’s operations.

Metzger noted it’s been a number of years since the department added staff.

Kiessling said the coroner’s office has to be better prepared for unexpected tragedies that result in multiple deaths.

He said he’d like for the county to have its own forensic pathologist but without better facilities it’s difficult to recruit anyone for the position.

“It’s really hard to do when you don’t have a building to do autopsies in,” he said. “I can’t recruit someone when I don’t have a building. We are the only area of state that doesn’t have forensic pathology services.”

Autopsies must be done elsewhere, usually in Allentown.

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