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Odette Hall, Suffolk's new chief medical examiner, braces for wave of new virus cases

Dr. Odette Hall is Suffolk County's chief medical

Dr. Odette Hall is Suffolk County's chief medical examiner. Credit: Suffolk County Medical Examiner

Odette Hall paused as a refrigerated trailer pulled up outside the Suffolk County medical examiner’s office in Hauppauge last spring.

Hall, then Suffolk County's deputy chief medical examiner, knew why the trailer was there — to serve as a temporary storage spot for bodies of COVID-19 victims.

As virus deaths mounted, local hospital and nursing home morgues were overwhelmed, and Hall helped orchestrate the medical examiner's response as it pitched in to help.

With timing she called "unreal," Hall, a forensic pathologist, was confirmed as Suffolk's new chief medical examiner in mid-November, just as the virus was spreading in another wave.

Hall said she was prepared.

"As a human being, I’m scared," Hall, who lives in Babylon Town, said of the new spike in cases.

"As the medical examiner, what's going through my mind is, we've been through this before," she said.

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Hall, Suffolk County’s first female and African-American chief medical examiner, runs a 100-person department charged with conducting autopsies, certifying deaths, transporting bodies and processing toxicology results and crime lab tests.

The office typically only takes cases requiring investigation, such as deaths from accidents, when possible criminality is involved or a person dies at home of unknown causes.

But more than 2,600 people have died of COVID-19 in Suffolk since March. When morgues at local hospitals and other institututions run out of space, the county medical examiner helps store their deceased patients.

Michael Caplan, who resigned as Suffolk's chief ME in November to teach at the University of Michigan, called Hall, 46, "a voice of reason" who understands the department depends heavily on its workers, not just administrators.

"I am completely confident that she's going to do a superb job as the chief," Caplan said.

Hall grew up in Jamaica, Queens and earned her bachelor's degree from Spelman College in Atlanta.

Hall became interested in forensic pathology while attending SUNY Downstate College of Medicine in Brooklyn, where she earned a medical degree. She recalled liking the ability to see manifestations of disease up close, instead of only in laboratories and scans.

During her decade-long career in the county medical examiner's office, Hall has testified about her forensic pathology work in several high-profile court cases.

They included a triple homicide that occurred in Central Islip in 2009, the murder of a 2-year-old Hempstead boy and his mother by MS-13 gang members in 2010 and the killing of a 12-year-old Boy Scout by a drunk driver in Manorville in 2018.

During the first wave of virus cases last spring, the office held 185 bodies on a single day, April 22. The office hadn't handled that many bodies since TWA Flight 800 crashed near East Moriches in 1996, killing all 230 people onboard.

The medical examiner's morgue in Hauppauge has a capacity of only 70. In the spring, the office increased capacity sixfold by bringing in two refrigerated trailers and using a former meat processing plant at Suffolk County Farm in Yaphank.

"Their work was herculean to say the least," said Suffolk Legis. Tom Donnelly (D-Deer Park), chairman of the county legislature's public safety committee.

While Hall found the period challenging, "there is a certain walling off that you have to do just to preserve yourself emotionally, psychologically, mentally, spiritually, and such. So you just kind of kick that into high gear."

Staff also had to help increased numbers of grieving families, who were not only upset about losing loved ones but also concerned they had been exposed to the coronavirus.

"We are here for the community in the worst hour of their life," Hall said. "There's no manual on how to lose a loved one. Sometimes you just have to sit on the phone in silence and listen to somebody cry."

Hall said the ME's office is prepared to handle another influx of bodies, if necessary, although she's hopeful better medical treatment will lead to fewer deaths. The office has additional morgue space ready, she said.

"Certainly, I don't think anyone would have chosen" the timing of her appointment as chief medical examiner, Hall said. "But sometimes you just have to rise to the occasion."

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