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Clark County coroner’s office dealt with thousands of deaths in 2016

The Clark County coroner’s office dealt with more deaths in 2016 than in any other year in the last decade.

Although the agency did not perform examinations in all of last year’s 16,685 deaths, the coroner’s office typically performs some kind of investigation in about 75 percent of the county’s deaths, Clark County Coroner John Fudenberg said.

And the coroner’s caseload has been growing steadily over the past decade. The number of deaths in Clark County has risen by 21 percent since 2006.

“We’ve been getting busier and busier every year,” Fudenberg said.

At a modest facility in the Las Vegas medical district, investigators probe all deaths by violence, criminal means and suicide, as well as any unattended deaths, regardless of cause. Bodies come from Las Vegas, North Las Vegas, Henderson, Boulder City, Mesquite and Laughlin. Occasionally, the office takes cases from other counties.

An investigation doesn’t necessarily mean an autopsy. Sometimes it means a telephone consultation with a doctor at a hospital after a death. Sometimes an investigator will respond to the scene of a death and determine that nothing looks suspicious.

It’s a lot of work for the agency and for Fudenberg.

NATURAL AND ACCIDENTAL DEATHS

The Las Vegas Review-Journal analyzed demographic data and causes of death for 3,863 cases from 2016, most of which involved natural deaths. Cases in which a body has not been identified or a cause of death has not been determined or an examination was not performed were excluded from the data.

There was a slight increase in 2016 from the previous year in the amount of natural deaths examined at the coroner’s office, but those 1,979 cases fell about 80 deaths short of the 2008 total. Fudenberg said his office conducted no examinations in thousands of other natural Clark County deaths.

Older members of the community made up the bulk of the deaths marked as natural – people in their 60s and older made up 69 percent of these deaths. Four women died after reaching triple-digit ages, 100 or 101, in 2016.

Accidental deaths ran the gamut.

In August, a 48-year-old Florida police officer’s death at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area was caused by “arterial gas embolism due to rapid ascent from depth while SCUBA diving due to asthma, hypertensive cardiovascular disease, obesity,” and a 49-year-old Las Vegas man’s death was caused by “anaphylaxis due to multiple bee stings,” according to the coroner data.

Drugs — including prescription, over-the-counter and illegal drugs — contributed to roughly 550 accidental deaths. More than half of those specifically involved opioids or opiates.

Fudenberg said the rate of opioid-related deaths is not as bad as it is in some places, and the county had only “a very slight increase” in 2016 from the previous year. But, he said, “It’s really an epidemic.”

The coroner said some places on the East Coast have seen opioid deaths increase by as much as 300 percent. Clark County isn’t there, but it could be headed that way.

“We believe it’s just a matter of time,” he said. “That’s a concern.”

Injuries led to 299 accidental deaths, not including the 198 cases in which a car crash was noted in the cause of death.

Dozens of the deaths labeled accidents in 2016 were tied to the Southern Nevada climate. The causes of death in about 80 cases between July and September included heat exposure.

Fudenberg said that number is not uncommonly high, just rarely reported. Test results that confirm heat exposure had a role in a person’s death often take up to eight weeks to come in.

“By the time we gather the data, it’s not hot anymore, so the media isn’t interested,” he said.

In a handful of those cases the cause of death was listed in the coroner data simply as “heat stroke” or “environmental heat exposure.” In the majority of the cases, however, deaths were caused by a combination of heat exposure and medical conditions — especially heart diseases, which were paired with the heat as causes of death in more than 70 cases.

About 70 percent of the heat-related deaths occurred among people 60 and older. Fudenberg said the extreme heat can be a problem for the “medically fragile” and often “pushes them over the edge.”

SUICIDE AND HOMICIDE

Medical examiners determined that 431 Clark County deaths in 2016 were the result of suicide, the majority of which involved a gun.

Nearly three times more males died by suicide than females. Two of the suicides involved 12-year-olds, and 20 were teenagers. But the majority of the cases occurred among people in their 30s, 40s and 50s.

There were at least twice as many suicides as homicides last year, but the latter received far more media attention. A spike in violent crimes across the Las Vegas Valley was one of the top stories of 2016, and the police departments from Las Vegas, Henderson and North Las Vegas each investigated significantly more homicides than the previous year.

Henderson police probed nine killings in 2016 – the least of any of the valley’s police agencies but still a 125 percent increase over the previous year. Preliminary totals from North Las Vegas police include 25 homicide investigations, a 56 percent increase. And the Metropolitan Police Department looked into 188 deaths, the most in at least 20 years.

But the valley’s much-talked-about homicides were only a small fraction of the valley’s deaths last year.

Gunshot wounds caused 74 percent of the homicide deaths. And the deaths spanned a number of age groups. Eight of those killed were younger than 10, and 20 were teenagers. The majority of the cases involved victims in their 20s and 30s.

Only about 21 percent of the homicide victims were female. As with accidental, natural and suicide deaths, males outnumbered females significantly.

Contact Wesley Juhl at wjuhl@reviewjournal.com and 702-383-0391. Follow @WesJuhl on Twitter.

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