Until the necessary critical mass of our population has been properly inoculated with one of the available vaccines and the rate of hospitalizations due to COVID-19 begins to drop, there is an immediate need to address the fallout from the overwhelming number of cases California is now facing and that is continuing to climb.
By now, all of us have become familiar with the host of negative effects and unfortunate outcomes associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. But, perhaps, none of those outcomes is more difficult to mitigate or reverse than the surge in fatalities that is inevitable following our present surge in COVID-19-related hospitalizations. Governor Gavin Newsom recently warned that California is about to experience “a surge on top of a surge.”
While numerous steps are already being taken to address an array of public health crises in support of critical care needs, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) is using California Department of Public Health (CDPH) hospitalization surge data to anticipate the severity of a surge in COVID-19-related fatalities that will only add to the existing normal rate of non-COVID deaths.
With Los Angeles County alone now exceeding 11,000 COVID deaths, which represents 40 percent of the state’s total fatalities, there is a growing need across the state to increase storage capacity for decedents.
“This has precipitated us at the Office of Emergency Services to activate the State Multi-Casualty Plan, which is a mass fatality management plan run through our division of law enforcement,” said Cal OES Director Mark Ghilarducci.
While this plan addresses needs affecting hospital operations, Director Ghilarducci has also tasked Cal OES’ Law Enforcement Branch with instituting the Coroner Mutual Aid Plan. The plan is designed to provide mutual aid to county coroners and will address the increased storage needed to mitigate the bottleneck caused by a surge in fatalities. The surge that is already beginning to occur has prompted hospitals to release an increasing number of fatalities to county coroners who must then hold the bodies until they can send them to funeral workers to be processed for burial.
“We can ensure we don’t get large backups, or, if we do have backups, they’re dealt with respect and dignity. That we have the appropriate equipment in place or materials that are required for coroners and medical examiners to effectively deal with the decedents,” said Director Ghilarducci.
The specific items required to accomplish this mitigation are the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies (masks, surgical gowns, etc.) for those handling the bodies, body bags, refrigerated trailers to serve as makeshift morgues, and appropriate shelving to increase the holding capacity for trailers that are not designed for this specific purpose.
In addition, Chief Mark Pazin of Cal OES’ Law Enforcement Branch is hosting weekly regional conference calls with the Area Coroner Coordinators to ensure proper distribution of these valuable supplies during this event.
The state’s first refrigerated trailer to assist with the storage of COVID-19 decedents arrives in Imperial County.
In response to needs currently expressed by county officials, Cal OES facilitated the distribution of 88 refrigerated trailers. Ten of those trailers have been leased by Cal OES and are specifically designed to serve as temporary morgues. They have been sent to locations within Imperial, Sonoma, San Bernardino, Monterey, and Los Angeles Counties. In addition, the Hub Group, an Illinois-based company, has donated 78 refrigerated trailers to the counties and hospitals within the State of California, whose distribution has been mediated by Cal OES.
Since these trailers are not designed to be used as morgues, Cal OES is working to provide the appropriate shelving to at least double an individual trailer’s capacity.
Furthermore, with Los Angeles County experiencing the largest surge in fatalities, there is a plan in place to set up a temporary morgue in the parking lot adjacent to the existing LA County Coroner facility. This temporary facility is expected to include at least five 53-ft. trailers supplied by Cal OES, another five 53-ft. trailers supplied by Los Angeles County, and an unspecified number of ground refrigerated storage containers.
“It is important to know that there is a plan, it is underway, and it is active today. We will continue to work at that with each of our 58 counties to ensure that all of these folks are taken care of in the most respectful manner,” said Cal OES Director Ghilarducci.