Grim calculations now include morgue capacity

By , Daily Memphian Published: December 10, 2020 4:36 PM CT

As the death toll rises across the city, hospital administrators have added a grim new calculation to their daily COVID math: The number of patients on ventilators divided by morgue capacity plus X — the variable for funeral home strain.

Since Sunday, Dec. 6, COVID-19 has claimed 26 lives in Shelby County, the high-water mark of the pandemic. 

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“One issue hospitals are facing is that funeral homes are busier this year and at times experience backlogs,” said Ayoka Pond, spokeswoman for Baptist Memorial Health Care. “Because funerals are taking longer to plan — some churches are not hosting funerals and others are spacing them out — it’s harder for funeral homes to pick up bodies as quickly as they have in the past.

“Baptist-Memphis is trying to get ahead of this and make contingency plans in case we need help with holding bodies until family/funeral homes are able to claim them.”

Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare has multiple contingency plans in case additional space is needed, said spokeswoman Sarah Farley.

Hospitals have always had their own morgue space, and it varies greatly by site. The seven-hospital Methodist Le Bonheur system has capacity for about 34 bodies. But at Methodist North, for instance, there is room for two.

The math is further complicated because the number of bodies fluctuates all through the day and night.

Across the city, the hospital morgues are full and getting fuller, said funeral director and City Council member Ford Canale.

“Pre-pandemic, different hospitals had different rules,” he said. “More often, funeral directors would go to the floor and get the decedent from the room.”

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When the pandemic started, funeral directors, including Canale, expressed concern about staff being on COVID floors.

“Some (hospitals) had already moved every single decedent to the morgue,” he said. “If they hadn’t, they are doing it now.”

Months ago, the Shelby County Health Department worked out a deal with the West Tennessee Regional Forensic Center (WTRFC), 637 Poplar, to staff up to hold up to 100 additional bodies coming from Shelby County hospitals.

The contract is funded by CARES Act dollars.

“This capacity is maintained separately from the daily WTRFC caseload,” forensic center director Benjamin Figura said. “We currently have seven individuals from area hospitals under our care, which is 7% of the total capacity for the overflow project.” 

Two trailers have been reserved for additional capacity.

The additional capacity has not been needed, said Alisa Haushalter, director of the Shelby County Health Department.

Funeral homes get to the hospital as soon as they can, Canale said, but as deaths increase, it has come down to a race for space, time and logistics.

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“Every funeral director I have spoken to is extremely busy right now,” Canale said. “When we get the call, we could be on another call or in a funeral service. If we are tied up, we can’t always respond immediately.”

The waits are longer if the funeral home is coming from any of hundreds of surrounding small towns, he said, noting it could take 90 minutes to make the trip, assuming the driver can leave quickly.

“You have got to consider, even though we are in a pandemic, we still have people dying of kidney and heart disease and cancer every single day,” he said. “And now quite a few more with COVID.”

In any city, there are also always cases of unclaimed human remains, Canale said, which means someone has to try to find the next of kin.

All the while, the numbers are building.


Ford Canale Baptist Memorial Health Care Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare coronavirus
Jane Roberts

Jane Roberts

Longtime journalist Jane Roberts is a Minnesotan by birth and a Memphian by choice. She's lived and reported in the city more than two decades. She covers business news and features for The Daily Memphian.


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