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

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

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, according to the department. 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.

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PeaceHealth St. John Medical Center doesn’t have cold storage because in normal times, remains are picked up promptly by the medical examiner or funeral home, said hospital spokesperson Randy Querin. The hospital deferred questions about COVID-19 deaths to the health department.

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.

The length of time the coroner holds a body depends on how long it takes the family to pick a funeral home and if the funeral home has a backlog, he said.

The county should be able to rent the trailer rather than purchase it, and the Department of Emergency Management is looking into the cost and other details, Davidson said.

Cowlitz County’s per capita COVID-19 death rate has been above the state average since January, according to the health department.

“Overall, we are seeing an increase in deaths due to COVID-19 following the recent swell of cases and hospitalizations,” said Stefanie Donahue, health and human services communications manager.

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COVID-19 deaths are not always immediately reported to the health department and take time to be reviewed, Donahue said.

Cowlitz County recorded 229 new confirmed COVID-19 cases over the three-day weekend, bringing the total to 9,170 confirmed and 1,061 probable cases. The county has recorded 137 COVID-19 deaths, up from 131 as of Friday. The state considers the most recent 16 days incomplete so that number could change.

Statewide, COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to rise, with more than 1,600 inpatients as of Tuesday morning, said Cassie Sauer, Washington State Hospital Association chief executive officer, in a press briefing. The number of patients on ventilators increased to 251, a 34% jump from last week, she said.

As of Tuesday morning, PeaceHealth St. John had 41 COVID-19 patients, down from an average of 48 for Saturday, Sunday and Monday and 62 on Friday. PeaceHealth spokesperson Querin said the hospital is hopeful the decrease in patients is the beginning of a downward trend, but it’s hard to say for sure. He said St. John is not providing the number of patients on ventilators, but confirmed it has enough staff and equipment to meet the local demand.

Davidson said he’s sending staff to the hospital to “bio seal” all the bodies, even if the patient did not have COVID-19, to keep coroner and funeral home staff safe from possible contaminants.

The coroner’s office doesn’t test all the bodies it receives from the hospital for the virus, but many were coming from the COVID-19 units over the weekend, he said.

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The coroner doesn’t have jurisdiction over most of those who die in the hospital, but Davidson said his office is looking into several deaths over the weekend of people who had COVID and died at home.

Not all the deaths the coroner’s office responded to over the weekend were COVID-19 related and the number of cases the coroner sees has increased over the last several years, Davidson said. The coroner had about 100 more cases in 2020 than 2019, and as of this weekend, the office had 135 cases more than this time last year, he said.

Even without the pandemic, the funeral homes would get an influx of deaths in a time period because of the large older baby boomer population, said Rick Little, vice president and general manager of Steele Chapel at Longview Memorial Park and Dahl McVicker Funeral Homes.

“I think that it has increased … with the COVID virus,” he said. “Our populations are getting older and that’s part of it too. I would emphasize that we’re just here to take care of people, and by having the … refrigerated truck is an important tool in taking care of our loved ones until they have their final place decided upon.”

Navigating the pandemic
(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

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