As the US body count grows, so do the problems of dealing with the dead

Top health official and US president warn of a spike in deaths

There are the new dead. And then there are the bodies waiting in overcrowded mortuaries to be buried as cities struggle to meet demand and families wrestle with rules on social distancing that make the usual funeral rituals impossible.

Med Alliance Group, a medical distributor in Illinois, is besieged by calls and emails from cities around the country. Each asks the same thing: Send more refrigerated trailers so that we can handle a situation we never could have imagined.

“They’re coming from all over: from hospitals, health systems, coroner’s offices, VA facilities, county and state health departments, state emergency departments and funeral homes,” said Christie Penzol, a spokeswoman for Med Alliance. “It’s heart-wrenching.”

The company has rented all its trailers and there’s an 18-week wait for new materials to build more, she said.

With US medical experts and even President Donald Trump now estimating the death toll from the coronavirus pandemic could reach 240,000 nationwide, the sheer practicalities of death – where to put the bodies – are worrying just about everyone as cities, hospitals and private medical groups clamour to secure additional storage.

The need is compounded by private mortuary space that is occupied longer than usual as people wait to bury their loved ones – regardless of how they died – because rules on social distancing make planning funerals difficult.

It’s a crisis being repeated worldwide.

In Spain, where the death toll has climbed to nearly 12,000, an ice rink in Madrid was turned into a makeshift morgue after the city’s municipal funeral service said it could no longer take coronavirus bodies until it was restocked with protective equipment. In Italy, embalmed bodies in caskets are being sent to church halls and warehouses while they await cremation or burial.

And in the coastal Ecuadorean city of Guayaquil, macabre images and pleas from families on social media show dead loved ones wrapped in plastic or cloth, waiting for days to be taken away by overwhelmed morgue workers.

In the US epicentre of New York City, where the death toll was more than 2,600 on Saturday, authorities brought in refrigerated trucks to store bodies. At Brooklyn Hospital Centre, a worker wheeled out a body covered in white plastic on a gurney and a forklift operator carefully raised it into a refrigerated trailer.

Cities and states that haven’t been hard-hit yet are trying to prepare for the worst. A top US health official warned Saturday that the US could see a dramatic increase in coronavirus deaths during the next week in hard-hit areas such as New York, Detroit and Louisiana.

Data show that several hundred people per day could die in New York alone in the next six or seven days, said Dr Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo estimated as many as 700 a day when the peak hits, she said.

Speaking of New York, Detroit and Louisiana, Birx said: “They are predicting in those three hotspots, all of them hitting together in the next six to seven days.”

“It’s going to be a very deadly period, unfortunately,” Trump said at a White House news conference.

It’s hard to say exactly how much morgue space is available across the United States. Many cities and counties submit emergency preparedness plans for review by state and federal officials, but tallies aren’t always complete and private mortuaries aren’t always included. Trade groups like the National Association of Medical Examiners don’t track those capacities either.

But, in general, few morgues in the country can hold even 200 to 300 bodies.

In Washington, DC, which has a morgue that can hold about 270 bodies, officials said they would seek help from federal partners if needed. Dallas has a plan for refrigerated space as part of its emergency preparedness efforts. And Chicago is already using a trailer outside the medical examiner’s office for the bodies of coronavirus victims, and may use a refrigerated warehouse if needed.

Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) has asked the Defence Department for 100,000 body bags, Pentagon spokesman Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Michael Andrews said Thursday.

On a daily basis, the system works at essentially full capacity in most jurisdictions, said Robert Jensen, co-owner of Kenyon International Emergency Services, a private disaster response company based in Texas.

“They’re not made for surge. They’re made to handle the daily numbers,” said Jensen, whose company has helped with mass fatality incidents from 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina to the 2004 tsunami in Thailand, all of which involved using refrigerated trucks to store bodies.

Brian Murphy, the CEO of Arctic Industries, which manufactures walk-in coolers and quick-assemble modular structures in Miami and Los Angeles, said he is getting calls seeking help. In the past, most clients were from the food industry, but with restaurants shuttered, calls about mortuary needs have risen.

He says his company is prioritising work related to Covid-19 and is considering working more hours to meet needs.

“Everything is very much in flux,” Murphy said.

The families of the dead, meanwhile, are making do.

Rosina Argondizzo of Glenview, Illinois, was buried in March with just a priest and four people present: her husband of 58 years, her son Peter, his wife and their son. Another son who lives in Italy didn’t travel. Peter Argondizzo said his 79-year-old mother, who died after contracting pneumonia and the flu, would have had a very different funeral in normal times.

“We’re Italian so it would have been a lot of people. … It would have been big,” he said, adding they would have hosted a meal in her honour, something they now hope to do at a later date. “She would have wanted everyone to have been well-fed.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like

How villagers were left at the mercy of a murderous sect

At the Iglesia de Dios church deep in the rainforest of Panama’s Caribbean coast, a number of unsettling objects attest to the horrific events which took place here. A black and red accordion stands among the overturned pews, children’s belongings…

Philippines targets Oxfam, other rights groups, as ‘communist fronts’

International humanitarian organizations are the latest to be targeted by the Philippine government as anti-state outfits, say activists. Earlier this month, the country’s Department of National Defense released a list of organizations that are allegedly acting as a front for…

‘Europe needs a break’: EU plots to restart travel and tourism despite COVID

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – EU states should guarantee vouchers for travel cancelled during the coronavirus pandemic and start lifting internal border restrictions in a bid to salvage some of the summer tourism season, the bloc’s executive will say next week. Tourism,…

Tired and sick, Spanish nurse ponders coronavirus missteps

MADRID (Reuters) – Auxiliary nurse Chelo Megia soldiered on through the toughest weeks of the coronavirus epidemic as it decimated elderly residents of a Spanish care home where she has worked without taking any sick days for 15 years. Finally,…