KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — The Knox County Regional Forensic Center has been approved for funding to move to a new facility and plans are being developed to meet the center’s growing needs, Chief Administrative Officer and Director Chris Thomas said.

In November, Thomas, Mayor Glenn Jacobs, Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Darinka Mileusnic and the regional forensic center spoke with Governor Bill Lee about the need for a new facility, and in February, their request was approved. Thomas said they had requested $20 million, allowing the facility to move to an area that met its need for a 32,000-square-foot space.

Now, Thomas said they are working to finalize a space where the building to go and plans for what it will look like. It will take two to three years before the new center’s doors are opened, according to Thomas.

“We will be OK until then, knowing that we’ve got a larger facility we’re going to be able to move into, but that way we have room for, unfortunately, future growth as the population continues to rise,” Thomas said.

The current, 18,000 square foot facility was created through a grant from the mayor and the state in 2014 when it needed to be moved from the University of Tennessee Medical Center, Thomas said. In recent years, though, Thomas said they went from taking care of 1,900 cases in 2019 to upwards of 2,800 cases in 2021.

“We were stretched as far as we could go, as far as personnel we needed to handle that caseload, to just having space to put everybody here. We got a morgue trailer as well too. We were having to utilize it a couple of times just to be able to handle the caseload,” Thomas said.

The reason for this can be traced back to population growth in the area as well as the pandemic. While the medical examiner did not see many COVID-19 deaths because they were considered natural, Thomas explained that in March 2020, the center began seeing more drug-related deaths.

Thomas said they saw many cases where individuals were released early from jails and rehabilitation centers because of COVID-19 regulations. At the same time, fentanyl began flooding the area drug market, and Thomas said they saw quite a few cases where people with histories of heroin usage had no heroin found in their toxicology reports. Instead, it was fentanyl, he said.

In 2021, there was a surge of homicides in Knox County, and the number of suicides appears to have taken off in the region as well, Thomas said.

In the midst of these growing numbers, Thomas said he spoke with the administration to find a way to increase space in 2022. Those changes included some adjustments for office space. He said his administrative assistant’s office is inside of the records room, and old closets were converted to offices. cubicles were set up in what used to be open floor space, and Thomas said it got to the point where they knew approaching the governor was the next step.

While a location has not been finalized for the new facility, Thomas said that the final location will be inside Knox County so the regional forensic center will be able to serve the county.

Knox County Regional Forensic Center is the medical examiner’s office for Knox and Anderson Counties, meaning that they investigate all deaths in the two counties that are sudden, unnatural, or unexplained. The center also performs autopsies for 21 other counties in East Tennessee, including Fentress, Cumberland, McMinn, Rhea, Meigs, Bradley, Polk, Monroe, Loudon, Blount, Sevier, Cocke, Jefferson, Hamblen, Grainger, Union, Campbell, Scott, Roane, Claiborne and Cocke.