Victim names not released

Identities of those who died in heat wave to come from medical examiner in 8 to 12 weeks

August 08, 2006|By JULIE SCHARPER | JULIE SCHARPER,SUN REPORTER

At least 21 people in Maryland have died from the extreme heat this summer, including seven in Baltimore. Yet the names and addresses of the victims have not been made public or given to state and city agencies responsible for advising people on how to stay healthy.

In some other states, such as Pennsylvania, the names of the victims of public health crises are released as soon as the cause of death has been determined. That allows independent agencies to analyze mortality trends and observe demographic or geographic patterns in deaths.

Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, Baltimore's health commissioner, said yesterday that he believes the names of people who have died in the heat should be made public.

"If a report like this leads people to check in on people that they think are vulnerable, then this information can be really helpful," he said.

Sharfstein said his office has been focused on preventing heat problems, not analyzing patterns in the deaths.

He said that his agency does not know who died from the heat in the city or where they died.

"That's really the medical examiner's job to identify that type of problem and notify public health," the health commissioner said.

Yesterday, city and state officials were unable to explain why the death of grocery store employee John L. Koehlerschmidt did not appear on the list of heat-related deaths, even though the state medical examiner ruled that hyperthermia - extreme overheating - as a cause of death.

Officials acknowledged that some heat-related deaths have still not been reported, and that the death toll could rise in the coming weeks.

"The figures that I release come to me from the information that I get from the office of the chief medical examiner," said John Hammond, a spokesman for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The medical examiner's office is a branch of the state Health Department.

Even though autopsy reports are public records, the medical examiner's office refuses to release the names of the heat's victims until two to three months after the death, said Shirl Walker, a spokeswoman for the office.

Medical examiners usually perform an autopsy within 24 hours of receiving a body, Walker said. However, it takes eight to 12 weeks for the office to complete tests and paperwork to make a final report.

"We handle 10,000 cases every year," Walker said.

Until then, the office will not release the names. When provided with a name, the medical examiner's office will release the cause and manner of death, long before the final report is completed.

Kevin J. Enright, a spokesman with the attorney general's office, said that autopsy reports are public records under Maryland's public information act.

However, he was unsure if the law compels the medical examiner's office to answer questions about deaths.

City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler would not say whether city officials would release the names of heat victims if they had them.

"We don't release information we don't have," Tyler said.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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