Clallam County coroner: OD deaths are among worst in state

Although most deaths in Clallam County are from natural causes, the county is clearly experiencing a number of illegal drug overdose deaths that is among the worst in the state, according to Prosecuting Attorney and Coroner Mark Nichols.

Nichols, speaking to the Port Angeles Noon Rotary on Oct. 11 said that Clallam County has recorded 19 confirmed drug overdose deaths this year, with another 19 deaths pending investigation.

“If I were a betting individual, I would tell you that likely all 19 of those will come back positive for probably a concoction of drugs that we’re seeing in people’s system,” Nichols said.

“Unfortunately, what that means is we have likely 38 fatal drug overdoses, calendar year to date, which already exceeds any high we’ve set in years past.”

Nichols said that month-to-month tracking of fatal overdose deaths in the state places Clallam County as third or fourth highest out of the 39 counties in Washington.

Nichols’ primary focus was to tell those present that, in addition to pursuing criminal cases, the Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office also functions as the county coroner, the office responsible for investigating and documenting unexpected deaths.

It’s also the function that Nichols said he receives a considerable amount of questions from the public about.

“It’s not uncommon when I go to service clubs and open the floor to questions that more than half the questions that I get are in relation to the coroner function,” Nichols said.

“I think the reason for that is we as people have a healthy curiosity of mortality, the cycle of life, and it’s not the sort of conversation that you can easily have,” Nichols said.

Informing the public about what the coroner does is important, Nichols said, as coroners work alongside other government and health agencies to collect data about unexpected deaths in the county which may then be used in the health and justice system.

The coroner’s office doesn’t investigate all deaths that occur in the county, just those that occurred unexpectedly such as from injury, drug overdose or criminal activity. Deaths from natural causes that take place in a hospital or long-term care facility are not generally investigated by the coroner’s office, Nichols said.

A coroner case usually starts with a phone call — typically from law enforcement but also potentially from firefighters at the scene of a fire or hospital staff reporting a death from injury — at which point the coroner gathers basic information and decides whether or not to invoke jurisdiction.

A coroner then seeks to answer questions surrounding what happened with a particular death at a deeper level, similar to a law enforcement investigation, focusing on the manner and cause of death. That information will be reflected on a death certificate, which is important for informing the greater health community about medical trends occurring around the country.

Nichols gave the example of West Nile Virus, a mosquito-borne disease that was the subject of considerable concern in the mid-2010s. Public health entities and public policy groups might use information from death certificates to track deaths from such a virus, and then make funding available for public information campaigns or other efforts to limit the spread of diseases.

Death certificate information also is used by the insurance industry to examine trends among age, gender and underlying health conditions.

Clallam County doesn’t conduct autopsies locally but instead uses a facility in Thurston County, Nichols said. In fact, Nichols said, the only qualification to be a coroner in some jurisdictions is to be electable, and no training is necessary.

That’s opposed to a medical examiner, who must be a medical doctor and is typically appointed, not elected.

There have been 34 accidental deaths in Clallam County, year to date, 24 of which were the result of falls among the senior population. There also have been four drowning deaths, three deaths from fire and three deaths from traffic wrecks.

There has been one homicide in the county this year. Nichols noted that homicide does not necessarily mean a murder but refers to the death resulting from the actions of another person.

Depending on the circumstances, a traffic wreck could be labeled a homicide even if the incident was completely accidental and no criminal charges are filed.

However, in this case, Nichols said the county’s one homicide did involve alleged criminal culpability and is currently before the courts.

Nichols said there have also been 16 suicides, all men, most from self-inflicted gunshot wounds.

“As high a number as that is, that’s lower than it has been in some other years,” Nichols said. “I take the position that that’s 16 suicides too many.”

This year, Clallam County also has had 14 deaths related to chronic alcoholism. The age range was from the 20s to the 70s.

Very few of the crimes Nichols’ office pursues as prosecuting attorney involve loss of life, and the county is fairly low on violent crime.

Though the coroner’s job is a vital one, Nichols said it’s not for the faint of heart. The staff at the coroner’s office were “cut from the right cloth,” for the work, and possessed qualities like empathy and humanity and who understood that they’re dealing with people with families and loved ones.

“It takes a special sort of calling to do this work, and I think it impacts everyone in their own unique way,” Nichols said. “It can be a little grim at times, admittedly.

“What I try to focus on is the fact that this line of work reminds you to enjoy life.”