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As COVID-19 deaths mount, a grim task: finding space for the dead

flickr user Stephan Ridgway

Michigan’s climbing number of COVID-19 deaths hasn’t taxed county morgues beyond capacity so far. But it is taxing the capacity of some hospitals and funeral homes.

The state is looking into providing alternative storage space, such as refrigerated trailers, according to the Michigan Hospital Association.

“The state continues to review potential surge space for expanded capacity if needed,” said Lynn Sutfin, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. “A decision on location has not been finalized at this time.”

Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties—the epicenter of Michigan’s COVID-19 outbreak—report no morgue capacity issues at this point. But if they do become overwhelmed, the Michigan Mortuary Operations Response Team could step in to help.

MI-MORT exists to help counties in mass casualty situations. The group has not been formally activated because no local emergency managers have made that request, according to MI-MORT Commander Tim Schramm.

“It is not in the scope of practice or mission for county medical examiners to manage hospital or funeral home capacity surges,” Schramm said.

Schramm is also the director of two Howe and Peterson funeral homes in Wayne County. He said at this point, he has one primary concern: a severe shortage of personal protective equipment for those who handle the dead.

“If one of my team members gets something from doing their job that costs them or one of their family members their life, that would tear me apart inside as a person,” said Schramm. He said protective equipment supply chains started getting choked off in early February, and funeral homes are considered lower priority for getting supplies than hospitals and first responders.

Schramm said funeral homes face storage capacity issues not only because of the sheer number of deaths, but also because many families are delaying funerals until after the pandemic recedes.

Schramm said MI-MORT has two mobile refrigerated units to offer if morgues do start reaching their limits. One has been “pre-deployed” to the Oakland County Medical Examiner. The other is slated for the field hospital at Detroit’s TCF Center.

Wayne County, which has seen the most COVID-19 deaths in the state, is at just over two-thirds capacity in its morgue, according to county spokesman Michael McElrath.

McElrath said the county has leased four refrigerated trailers “in preparation for potential overflow in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.