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Nov. 26, 2022

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New Cowlitz County coroner equipment to help alleviate long toxicology result waits at Washington state crime lab

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LONGVIEW — Cowlitz County officials say the coroner’s office will soon have the ability to perform in-house toxicology reports to ease long waits at the state’s only accredited testing lab and quickly shed light on final moments for grieving loved ones.

Toxicology results from the driver who died in a rollover car accident Monday on Industrial Way in Longview are expected to be returned from the Washington State Patrol Toxicology Laboratory in up to a year, said Cowlitz County Coroner Tim Davidson.

The toxicology results from the body discovered Sept. 3 near Longview’s WestRock Paper Mill could take months as well, he added.

As of Tuesday, Davidson said the office was waiting for results of 24 cases, starting as far back as May 20. Six of those could produce criminal charges, like driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

With the new equipment, Davidson said results can turn around in about 30 minutes.

The $50,000 machine — purchased with federal COVID relief funds — is expected to arrive within weeks.

The equipment won’t be used for possible criminal cases because court cases require the WSP’s accredited lab results, Davison said. But for all other deaths, which still require answers to close the loop on final moments and kick start insurance benefits, results can be provided the same day autopsies are performed.

Eliminating some of WSP’s backlog should also help the potential criminal results be returned sooner, Davidson said.

“Overall the big thing is providing answers for their loved ones, rather than having them relive it 10 months down the road,” he said.

All 39 counties in Washington state use WSP for toxicology results. The lab has locations in Vancouver, Seattle, Tacoma, Marysville and Spokane, and two smaller, specialized labs in Tumwater and Seattle.

WSP spokesperson Chris Loftis said the current wait for DUI casework is 10 to 12 months.

DUI cases account for the majority of the labs’ work. In 2021, the lab received 9,917 DUI cases compared to 5,592 death investigations. In total, the lab received about 15,700 samples in both 2020 and 2021, the agency reports.

Davidson said the state’s legalization of marijuana increased the need to test impaired drivers.

Loftis also credited issues like population increases, rising crime and COVID-related staffing shortages for creating more work for the lab, resulting in longer waits. Wait times before 2017 were under 30 days, he added, while at the beginning of the year, durations peaked at 355 days.

“In short, the demand for toxicology resources has steadily been growing at a rate that exceeds both the capacity and rate of capacity growth,” he said in an email.

A new lab in Federal Way is expected to open in 2023 and eventually reduce wait times back to 30 days, Loftis said. The lab will include seven new forensic scientists, he added.

During the last Legislative session, WSP was also awarded about $1.3 million to provide expedited DNA technology and forensic services to, in part, eliminate the backlog. WSP says the pilot could also help process mass disasters scenes like the 2014 Oso mudslide.

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