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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

SC Coroner Worries Morgue Will Run Out Of Space Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

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Rhodi Lopez

How many bodies come in and out of the Lancaster County morgue in South Carolina depends on the day — and really the hour. But when the morgue gets close to 10 or 11 bodies, which is near to capacity, that’s a reason for coroner Karla Deese to be concerned. It’s been an ongoing worry throughout the coronavirus pandemic, and Deese said it came to a head last week.

"Between (those) stored in the morgue and coming in and out of the door, we had 13 processing Monday," Deese said.

At least half of those bodies had COVID-19. South Carolina has had over 5,200 confirmed COVID-19 deaths. Deese says at this point, the morgue is processing multiple COVID-19 deaths a day.

"At some points in time 75% of our morgue has been COVID," she said.

Typically, a body stays at the morgue for one or two days, Deese says. But if someone had COVID-19 and their family is also infected leaving them quarantined, that can delay funeral plans. It also means the morgue holds onto the body longer — sometimes 10 to 21 days.

"Our main focus is to respect and handle these bodies properly, give these families time to heal from their COVID exposure and not further expose anyone else in the process," Deese said. "But in doing so we are going to run out space."

In South Carolina, the coroner is an elected official. That differs from North Carolina, which has a centralized medical examiner system and only a handful of elected coroners left in the state.

So what happens if the morgue runs out of storage? Deese says there are two options.

The first option is to transport a body to a neighboring county’s morgue, but Deese says that's a short-lived solution because "they are going to face the same issues we face."

The second option is to use a refrigeration truck that Deese says would be provided by the South Carolina Coroner’s Association.

"That would be our next thing would be to call one of those in," Deese said. "Hopefully we do not have to, but it is available and that stays at the front of my mind. It’s very real, it’s very possible."

According to reports last week, North Carolina hospital leaders at Moses Cone Memorial Hospital in Greensboro said their morgue is bracing to hit capacity. A tractor-trailer was preemptively stationed outside the hospital to provide more space should the morgue run out of room.

It’s an exhausting and stressful situation, Deese says. Her staff is tired, and she is constantly searching for more personal protective equipment, especially as her office handles more COVID-19 patients.

"If it’s a really bad week and our suppliers are down, we could burn through what we’ve got in a week and a half to two weeks," Deese said. "Every day we are constantly checking vendor websites and trying to keep ahead of it."

But part of what keeps Deese motivated despite the long hours and grim numbers is the data she’s collecting to protect the public.

One of her favorite sayings is: "From death, you do learn a lot about living."

That's why everybody that comes through Deese's morgue is tested for COVID-19, whether it was the cause of death or not.

"That usually raises an eyebrow. People are pretty crude and say, ‘Well why? I mean, they are dead?’' and I hate that statement because, again, you learn a lot about living from death," she said. "And while they may be deceased, wouldn’t you want to know if they had COVID? If that even plays a part in their death?"

She used an example of a 28-year-old mother who went to her doctor after feeling short of breath and was slightly congested. She had just had a COVID-19 test, which came back negative. She was diagnosed with bronchitis. She went home and started to feel better but then took a quick turn and died. When her body came to the morgue, Deese made sure she got a COVID-19 test.

"I did not expect a positive result on her, and we tested her and she was positive," Deese said.

Deese was able to provide that information to the woman’s family so they could seek their own treatment.

She insists that even if someone had tested positive in the past and had recovered, their body still be tested.

"For a couple of my decedents that have come in, I know when their hospital records or doctor’s office records say that they tested positive and I know that it’s been 19 weeks later, they are well over it but they are still testing positive," Deese said. "So, I can provide those timelines when, in the years to come, studying this pandemic, that's very helpful."

She keeps that saying — "from death, you learn a lot about living" — at the front of her mind as she continues to examine and provide data from the dead to hopefully help educate the living.

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