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The Sedgwick County Forensic Science Center has an autopsy backlog. It’s partly due to fentanyl.

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, has been used for decades as a painkiller in the operating room.
Joe Amon
The Denver Post/Getty Images
Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, has been used for decades as a painkiller in the operating room.

The center handles autopsies and drug identification cases, each of which have increased in recent years due to fentanyl.

The growing fentanyl presence in Wichita is creating a backlog at Sedgwick County's Regional Forensic Science Center.

The center conducts autopsies and identifies illicit drugs for law enforcement.

But in recent years, the influx of cases has increased substantially, in part due to fentanyl. From 2019 to 2021, the number of autopsies the center handled increased by 33%, said Lana Goodson, the Criminalistics Lab Manager at the Regional Forensic Science Center.

“But of those that were overdoses, the overdoses increased by 114%,” Goodson said at a town hall meeting Wednesday on fentanyl. “A big part of that was contributed from the fentanyl.”

More overdoses means that more autopsies require complex toxicology analyses, wrote Dr. Shelly Steadman, director of the Regional Forensic Science Center, in an email to KMUW.

“Bottom line, we have more cases and each case is taking longer,” Steadman wrote.

It’s been difficult for the center to keep up. At a recent town hall meeting, Goodson said that the center still needed to complete more than 300 autopsies from 2022.

The number of drug identification cases has also increased substantially due to fentanyl, Goodson said. In 2018, only three cases contained fentanyl. In 2022, 698 cases contained fentanyl. Plus, Steadman added that many cases have thousands of pills per case, making them time-intensive to analyze.

That’s led to a backlog in drug identification, too. At the end of December, just more than 1,000 drug cases were awaiting testing.

Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett said that he can’t charge a case regarding possession or distribution of fentanyl until the center has tested the drug.

“We cannot file a case on someone for possession of a blue pill,” Bennett said. “It has to be tested to confirm that this substance in the pill is in fact fentanyl.

“So that’s part of the … impediment to moving forward. ”

Bennett added that his office works closely with the forensic science center to prioritize important cases. His office charged 52 fentanyl-related cases in 2022, almost 40 more than in 2020.

“The Center is prioritizing high profile cases believed to involve large quantities of fentanyl to meet court dates as a matter of public safety,” Steadman wrote in an email to KMUW.

Steadman wrote that staffing challenges also contributed to the backlog in autopsies and drug identification cases.

“In the Toxicology Laboratory, training takes 1-2 years, so simply hiring people does not fill the gap,” Steadman wrote. “It takes 1-2 years to realize the positive impact of a fully trained staff, and we continue to have a difficult time retaining scientists once they are trained.”

Celia Hack is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Beacon covering local government and as a freelancer for The Shawnee Mission Post and the Kansas Leadership Center’s The Journal. She is originally from Westwood, Kansas, but Wichita is her home now.