Fact Finders: COVID-19 slows down funerary process in Pima County

KOLD FACT FINDERS: Morgue storage use

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - As cases, hospitalizations and deaths due to the coronavirus continue to increase in Arizona, officials in Maricopa County ordered refrigerated storage for overflow morgue capacity last week, if needed.

The Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner announced it would be helping funeral homes and hospitals store bodies earlier this month. The county said the offer was not directly connected to the coronavirus outbreak.

As of Monday, July 26, a county spokesperson said there was plenty of room at the OME and there has been no change in the Office’s assistance posture.

“We’re in the business of helping families,” said Joseph Stone, Funeral Director at Bring’s Broadway Chapel.

At the time of the press release, the Pima County OME said “capacity has gradually become an issue over the past couple of weeks, which can mostly be attributed to a slowdown in the funerary process amid the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“How it’s affected us is what we’re able to do with families, in terms of bringing groups of people together, in terms of social distancing. Gathering size no larger than ten. That is the biggest impact,” said Stone.

At Bring’s Broadway Chapel, Stone said their practice is to give families as much time as they need while grieving. It seems that many aren’t in “a rush,” he said, during the pandemic.

“The Medical Examiner’s Office did offer that space to us, but we don’t see a need and don’t foresee a need to take advantage of that,” said Stone.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports COVID-19 does not require you to change the wishes of your deceased family member or friend. While there is still a lot to learn about the virus, the CDC reports there is currently no know risk associated with being in the same room at a service or visitation with someone who passed after contracting the virus.

Stone said precautions have always been in place, well before the pandemic.

“In any situation where we are actually in contact with human remains, we practice universal precautions, which is basically the assumption that there are potentially hazardous diseases or illness that we need to be aware of,” said Stone. “We treat all decedents in the same respect.”

The Pima County Medical Examiner will cooperate with hospitals, funeral homes and mortuaries as the industry works with families to provide services for the deceased. Pima County does not anticipate long-term storage of remains will be necessary.

The Office has capacity to store the remains of 150 people in addition to its usual census.

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