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County hires private lab to work on Medical Examiner’s Office case backlog

Facing a months-long backlog of cases, the county Medical Examiner’s Office has signed a contract with a private laboratory to work through hundreds of unfinished toxicology tests.

NMS Labs will do the work for San Diego County under a one-year contract that was signed Monday. County payments to the lab will not exceed $98,560, according to county spokesperson Chuck Westerheide.

Having the contract fall under the $100,000 threshhold allowed county staffers to hire the lab without putting the work out for competitive bid.

A surge in fatal drug overdoses coupled with staffing vacancies helped create the unprecedented backlog, which has delayed prosecution of some homicides and left family members of people who died unexpectedly waiting for answers.

Earlier this year, the Medical Examiner’s Office posted a warning on its website that said it could take up to six months for causes of death to be determined and for cases to be closed.

NMS will analyze samples and provide fentanyl confirmation and quantification for cases where the Medical Examiner’s Office already has a presumptive positive screening result from its in-house lab, Westerheide. said.

The office investigated 4,403 deaths in 2021. In the past two years, accidental fentanyl overdose deaths jumped from 151 in 2019 to more than 800 logged by the end of 2021.

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