As Ada County’s coronavirus death toll climbs — it hit 85 on Tuesday, part of more than 250 deaths statewide — a grim, but real, concern has emerged: making space for the deceased.
The Ada County Coroner’s Office is using a refrigerated 55-foot trailer to house the bodies of those who had or might have been exposed to the virus prior to their death.
The trailer was purchased in April, and Coroner Dotti Owens said the office has been using it since the week it was delivered. On average, there are about six to 11 bodies in the trailer, but it can hold up to 70.
When the coroner’s office responds to a death where the cause is suspected to be COVID-19, that individual is put in the trailer until a test is completed to verify whether the person had the coronavirus. If the test is positive, the decedent is sent to a funeral home; if it’s negative, they can be brought into the coroner’s main building for further assessment.
“Because of the trailer, we are still running at capacity internally, but the trailer has allowed us to put any of the potential COVID overflow out into the trailer,” Owens said. “That has helped us immensely right now. I don’t know what we would do. ... We are full daily. Every day. We are trying to get individuals released to funeral homes as quickly as we can.”
The pandemic has created some issues for the Ada County Coroner’s Office, but Owens said that thus far, her staff members have not contracted the virus.
The coroner’s office always responds if a death was unattended, meaning outside the care of a physician, or if a death was unnatural, such as a suicide or homicide. Coroners do not respond to every coronavirus death.
A coroner would be called if the death occurred in an emergency room or within 24 hours of a patient being hospitalized, or if the patient was unconscious upon arrival at the hospital and never regained consciousness, Owens said.
If the decedent had ongoing, documented medical problems prior to their death, the coroner could release jurisdiction to that person’s primary care physician. But if the death was considered unexpected, the coroner would always take over.
The Ada County Coroner’s Office has jurisdiction over any death that occurs in Ada County, even if the person is not a county resident. This has the possibility of increasing the caseload during the pandemic, because some people from elsewhere in Idaho are being taken to Boise’s big hospitals.
Owens said she knows the death rate is not extreme in Idaho, but the coronavirus does create extra work.
“What it’s doing is it’s putting strain on the system,” she said. “It’s causing the hospitals to be at capacity. Causing stress at the funeral homes to be at capacity. And the only reason we’re not in trouble with it right now, even with ... extra bodies, is because we have the trailer.”
Owens’ office has been communicating with hospitals and funeral homes to make sure they know which places have capacity.
“We want to make sure that not one of our agencies reaches a problem,” Owens said.
Emergency management for Ada County is helping with coordination, she said.
Owens said her office is investigating all COVID cases to make sure deaths attributed to the disease are classified appropriately.
“We are picking up (dead) individuals, several a week, that are COVID-positive. And these are true COVID deaths,” she said. “These aren’t individuals that have another ailment and then COVID, or a car accident with COVID. I haven’t seen any of that.”
Owens offered as an example the death of a man who had overdosed but was also positive for COVID-19. His case was documented as an overdose because the virus wasn’t the actual cause of death.
“We are making sure that these deaths that we are considering are true COVID deaths,” she said.
Both St. Luke’s Health System and Saint Alphonsus Health System said they have plans in place for morgue capacity that are proactive. Neither hospital system has faced a morgue space problem.
“As St. Luke’s continues its surge planning efforts related to COVID-19, we are considering a range of issues — one of those is how we would need to address capacity issues in our morgue,” said St. Luke’s spokesperson Anita Kissee. “We are not currently experiencing a capacity problem.”
Saint Alphonsus also confirmed its discussions have been proactive.
“We appreciate the collaboration we have with the Ada County coroner and her office, and we will continue to work with her and others in the community,” said Saint Al’s spokesperson Mark Snider. “Saint Alphonsus has prepared contingency plans in the event that we exceed our morgue’s capacity.”
He did not expand on what the contingency plan involved.
Canyon County Coroner Jennifer Crawford said her office has tested only “a handful” of deceased people and is not yet concerned about capacity issues. Canyon County, as of Tuesday, had seen 51 coronavirus deaths.
Owens said she is working to make sure her staff stays healthy, and so far no one has tested positive. She is hopeful the rate of infection will decrease, ultimately leading to a decrease in deaths.
“I don’t want anyone to think it’s fear mongering. I’ve heard that term so much since the pandemic started,” Owens said. “... It’s not something to take lightly. Every single day, all of us are going out there and we are at risk.”