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Medical examiner explains need for cold storage as El Paso deaths increase during pandemic

A morgue trailer at the El Paso County Medical Examiner's office.

EL PASO, Texas -- El Paso County health officials have called up cold storage units to hold bodies in case the county morgue reaches capacity.

As of last week, it was at 75 percent.

ABC-7 anchor Stephanie Valle spoke to Michigan forensic pathologist Dr. Joyce DeJong about what the need for mobile morgues says about El Paso's situation. She said a move like this by any entity shows preparation for the worst and she also said it isn't the only thing that is needed as the death toll rises.

DR. DEJONG: One of the things we found is to make certain that the funeral homes are well prepared because if they don't have enough PPE and they don't have enough body bags, they are not going to feel comfortable and they're not going to be safe picking up these bodies of the decedent. And we have to make certain that they're safe. If they say they don't have adequate supplies, that's going to get disrupted and things are gonna back up. And that's a bad thing.

SV: Is that something that is unique to the situation we are in because we're in a pandemic, or is that standard procedure to put people into a body bag?

DR. DEJONG: Now, there are these concerns. Now, if you are in a nursing home or a hospital and you have Covid, even if you suspect it, they need to go into a body bag and the number of body bags needed has certainly increased. Hopefully we can get back to a time when that isn't necessary, but we need to do that to protect the people who are in the industry of taking care of the dead.

SV: Is there research that shows the deceased can still pass on Covid? Is that why these extra precautions are being taken?

DR. DEJONG: When we test the dead we see positive results. …and they're still testing positive hours to days after they died. So, it's still there; it may not be intact, but we're seeing it … we just need to be careful about that. We're on occasion doing autopsies on people who died from Covid and it's clear you need to have adequate PPE.

SV: How dire is a situation if the county is having to call in for backup space for bodies?

DR. DEJONG: If they need this additional space and they have agreements and they're managing to get these resources in, I think it's being well prepared. There have been some scenarios where people have found a warehouse and they're putting them on the floor of the warehouse and maybe it isn't refrigerated. That is not well prepared and it's not how we care for the dead in this country.

SV: It's -- I would think -- a good reminder that if you don't want your family member to end up in this situation then you need to be safe, right. Especially during a pandemic.

DR. DEJONG: Absolutely. I mean, anything we can do to slow the spread and decrease the number of fatalities is really important and really critical. I know a lot of times they're saying, 'These are people who are old and had other co-morbidities,' but they're also someone's family member and somebody's loved one and I think it really hurts that they're dying alone. A lot of them are dying alone and I think that is a painful thing.

Dejong also said in Michigan, she is seeing an increase of deaths that aren't Covid-related, specifically overdoses, as well as an increase in people dying at home.

Article Topic Follows: Coronavirus

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Stephanie Valle

Stephanie Valle co-anchors ABC-7 at 5, 6 and 10 weeknights.


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