As COVID-19 deaths increase, some Louisiana funeral homes, coroner's offices become overwhelmed
NEW ORLEANS - As coronavirus-related deaths continue to impact south Louisiana, The Advocate reports that coroners offices and funeral homes throughout the New Orleans area are running out of room to store bodies and resorting to innovative means to hold funeral services.
Sunday saw the most significant uptick in the state's number of COVID-19 deaths yet, with health officials recording a total of 477 deaths.
Most of the fatalities occurred in Orleans Parish, the epicenter of the contagion in Louisiana and a nationally recognized hot-spot of virus activity.
Even though makeshift morgues have been set up for coroners and funeral homes, last week Mayor LaToya Cantrell requested federal aid in the form of refrigerated units for body storage, explaining that the Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office is overwhelmed by the mounting death toll.
One funeral home director compared the body storage situation with Hurricane Katrina. Others said it brought to mind the yellow fever epidemic of the 1800s, when undertakers became overwhelmed and the Crescent City became known as the nation’s "necropolis."
“I’ve been a funeral director since 1962, and I’ve never seen this,” said Stephen Sontheimer, the senior consultant and funeral director at Lake Lawn Metairie Funeral Home and Cemetery. “We have a very large staff, and we’re used to having a lot of families call upon us, but obviously this is an exceptional time.”
Dr. Gerry Cvitanovitch, the Jefferson Parish coroner, said he had taken bodies from Orleans Parish to store weeks ago, but the parish has since seen its own backlog at hospitals, mostly because funeral homes in his area lacked the ability to hold the deceased.
The bodies of people who die from infectious diseases are normally sent directly from hospitals to funeral homes, Cvitanovitch said. But as the coronavirus crisis quickly escalated, he said, funeral homes found themselves without the necessary personal protection equipment needed to handle those who had died from infection, preventing them from being able to transport or embalm the remains.
Cvitanovitch’s office can normally hold 75 bodies, he said, and in recent weeks, his office had to rent refrigerated trailers to store more. Now he has the capacity to hold 115 bodies, and that’s expected to increase further in coming weeks when the state sends more trailers to Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, he said.
And with social distancing orders in place, families are scrambling to coordinate appropriate funeral and memorial services.
Some families are choosing to cremate and postpone services, while others are using Facebook livestreams and other technology to broadcast graveside services.
Officials fear the pace of deaths will likely mount in the coming days as the number of sick and hospitalized patients continues to rise.
On Sunday, the number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 rose to 1,803.
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