Proof of Pierce County’s weight problem: More obese bodies at the morgue, and a new employee to help move them

Staff members are shown in the autopsy room at the Pierce County medical examiner’s offices. The 17-member staff will soon be supplemented by a “transport agent” to help move dead bodies.
Staff members are shown in the autopsy room at the Pierce County medical examiner’s offices. The 17-member staff will soon be supplemented by a “transport agent” to help move dead bodies. News Tribune file photo, 2016

Pound by pound, one belt notch at a time, Pierce County is growing too large for its own good.

The local adult obesity rate, 31.2 percent at last count in 2016, tips the scales nearly 3 percentage points above the state average. We’re fatter than our neighbors in King, Kitsap and Thurston counties. And the epidemic threatens to strain the 253 area for decades; more children here are classified obese compared to their school-age peers statewide, according to Washington’s most recent Healthy Youth Survey.

Unfortunately, the downstream costs associated with chronic obesity are a community responsibility, and public employees increasingly have to do the heavy lifting. Literally.

That’s an additional weight on firefighters and paramedics who try to keep patients alive. What’s often overlooked, however, is the burden it places on workers who must deal with the dead.

A new full-time position in the Pierce County medical examiner’s office, recently approved by the County Council as part of the 2019 budget, speaks volumes.

The medical examiner, Dr. Thomas Clark, is now authorized to hire a “transport agent.” Among other tasks, this employee will handle the physically demanding work of removing dead bodies from hospitals, nursing homes and other institutions, so that death investigators and autopsy technicians can focus on their forensic duties.

The extra staffing will help meet the goal of sending two investigators to a death scene, Clark told us in an interview. It also should cut down on injuries, and Clark doesn’t mince words: Having to move an increasing number of obese corpses is a chief reason his employees get hurt. One staff member was recently out for nine months.

What’s another way to measure the local obesity problem? With a scale, of course. The medical examiner recently obtained a new heavy-duty scale because the old one couldn’t weigh bodies above 350 pounds.

Pierce County’s corpulence even invites comparisons to the Deep South, home to some of America’s worst weight problems. Clark reflected that when he took the job here nine years ago, he saw fewer obese bodies than he did as a medical examiner in North Carolina. “I don’t think that’s the case anymore,” he said.

In another sign of the times, the Tacoma Fire Department next year will start charging skilled nursing facilities and assisted-living centers a “lift-assistance” fine up to $850. The fine creates a disincentive for care facilities that routinely call 911 when their residents fall.

Reducing injuries among first responders is an expected side benefit, Tacoma officials say — and while they don’t explicitly mention lifting obese patients, it stands to reason that it would be a risk factor.

Most of us would do well to pay more attention to our body mass index. If you skip a second trip through the Christmas party buffet line or pledge to exercise regularly for your New Year’s resolution, more power to you.

But real progress won’t come until being overweight is treated as a public health crisis, not just a personal challenge.

Obesity thrives when people are trapped in tough socioeconomic circumstances that feed self-destructive lifestyles. It afflicts families that eat food high in processed carbohydrates because it’s cheap and because fresh, healthy foods are expensive – or unavailable in some neighborhoods. It stalks those who can’t afford gym memberships.

Households earning less than $25,000 a year and people with less than a college degree are at acutely greater risk, according to state health data.

Progress will be elusive unless we stop losing community resources, like diabetes prevention classes. Funding for a four-year Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department initiative ended in September.

Progress will also remain elusive as long as our leaders wave the white flag, such as the Trump Administration’s recent loosening of school lunch nutrition guidelines.

Evidence of obesity’s heavy toll is getting impossible to ignore, haunting many people until their dying day — and public employees and taxpayers even longer.