COVID-19 deaths overwhelm morgue in Cowlitz County

A recent increase in COVID-19 deaths has overwhelmed a southwest Washington county’s storage capacity, prompting the coroner to ask the commissioners declare an emergency to allow the county to bring in a refrigeration trailer.

"I hope this is a bit of a wake up call for people. I don’t know how much more real you can get than our morgue being filled up with people and us having to get a refrigerated truck," said "Dr. Steven Krager, Cowlitz County Deputy Health Officer.

Cowlitz County commissioners agreed Tuesday to the request to help expand capacity until the new morgue is ready for staff to move into in about a month.

The Daily News reports Cowlitz County Health and Human Services data for the past week is incomplete, but at least eight county residents died due to COVID-19 between Aug. 31 and Sept. 6. The residents were between their 40s and 90s, and seven of the residents had been hospitalized.

Coroner Tim Davidson said the morgue and the county’s funeral homes are maxed out on capacity and are "being creative" to maintain cold storage. All together, the facilities can typically hold 45 bodies and right now have about 65, he said.

"We’re just doing our best that we can to preserve the dignity of the deceased from this point forward until they can be processed for their families," Davidson said. "I’ve been with the office for 21 years and I have never seen something like this before."

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The morgue can hold 10 bodies, but is currently "way above that," using gurney tables in the cooling rooms to handle the increase, Davidson said. The new morgue that’s under construction will be able to hold 50 in cold storage, he said. Staff is set to move into the new building around Oct. 4, he said.

Last month at least two counties in Oregon also requested refrigerated trucks to hold bodies because of the rapidly increasing COVID-19 death rate.

Dr. Krager said PeaceHealth St. John Medical Center is at capacity. He explained the county health department is seeing 90 to 100 positive COVID-19 cases reported daily.

"And that’s translating now into about 10 people being hospitalized each day in Cowlitz County and about one person dying every day on average," said Dr. Krager.

The Washington State Hospital Association said capacity is stressed statewide, with 1,674 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, in which 251 of them are on ventilators.

"All of these people are not going to make it. Hospitals are providing incredible care to them. It is hugely labor intensive, but once folks get on a ventilator many of them will not survive. It turns into a cascade of organ failure and other very serious issues," said Cassie Sauer, CEO of Washington State Hospital Association.


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