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Florida sets death toll record, while trailer truck outside funeral home raises COVID-19 fears

"This is a side effect of the times we are living in," Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernández said.
Image: Dante Hills
Health care worker Dante Hills passes paperwork to a woman in a vehicle at a COVID-19 testing site in Miami on July 27, 2020.Lynne Sladky / AP

Florida set another record Tuesday with nearly 200 more COVID-19 deaths recorded overnight, but in recent days an ominous sight outside a funeral home has been sending a shiver through a Miami-area town — a refrigerated trailer for storing bodies.

Rumors that the corpses of coronavirus victims were being stored there — and unfounded fears that the bodies could spread the disease — have sparked several protests in recent days outside the San Jose Funeral Home in Hialeah.

“We went to the funeral home to ask about it and they told us that they were at capacity and that they had COVID-19 infected bodies that they were storing in that container,” Liliana Vázquez Acosta, who lives near the funeral home and who first sounded the alarm, told The Miami Herald.

Image: Six refrigerator trailers sit outside of the Hillsborough County Medical Examiners Office in Tampa
Six refrigerator trailers sit outside of the Hillsborough County Medical Examiners Office on July 6, 2020 in Tampa, Fla.Octavio Jones / Getty Images

Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernández acknowledged remains were being stored in the trailer but said “the refrigerated container does not have bodies from people who died of COVID-19." He said the trailer was moved Tuesday to a fenced-in area on another part of the property that is out of sight of the neighbors.

"This was never any danger to anyone," he told NBC News. "The Hialeah Health Department was all over this from the start. I understand the concerns of the people living nearby, but this is a side effect of the times we are living in."

Maria Villatoro, vice president of operations at the funeral home, would not confirm if any of the bodies stored in the trailer were of people who died from the coronavirus, but said Tuesday they want to be good neighbors.

“While there is no risk, which we have demonstrated to health officials, elected officials and police when they inspected the facility, out of an abundance of understanding and compassion for our neighbors, we have worked with the Mayor and other officials to shift the location of our special care facility away from our neighbors to the other side of our property,” she said in a statement.

Even if there are COVID-19 remains in the trailer, they pose little danger to the living, the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines state.

COVID-19 is mostly spread “when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks,” the guidelines state. “This route of transmission is not a concern when handling human remains or performing postmortem procedures. It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes. This is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”

The death toll in Florida jumped to 6,240 Tuesday after the state health department reported a record 191 additional fatalities, NBC News reported. That is the highest 24-hour number since the start of the pandemic.

In other developments:

  • The U.S. death toll from the pandemic climbed over 150,000, NBC News has confirmed. As of Tuesday afternoon, there were 150,104 deaths reported out of 4,340,149 cases. The U.S. leads the world -- by a large margin -- in the number of Covid-19 deaths and cases, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center.
  • Texas changed the way it records coronavirus deaths and the result was a massive overnight increase of 1,178 deaths. That brings Texas’ death total to nearly 6,300, according to the latest NBC News tally. “The Texas Department of State Health Services is now counting deaths marked on death certificates as caused by COVID-19,” The Texas Tribune reported. “Previously, the state relied on local and regional public health departments to verify and report deaths.”
  • Brad Pitt’s portrayal of Dr. Anthony Fauci in a Saturday Night Live skit garnered him a surprise Emmy nomination in the Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series category. Pitt ended the April 25 installment’s quarantine cold open by taking off his wig and saying, “And to the real Dr. Fauci, thank you for your calm and your clarity in this unnerving time. And thank you to the medical workers, first responders, and their families for being on the front line.” Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was the target of a White House attempt to discredit him because his more sober assessments of the pandemic have often collided with the rosier outlook President Donald Trump has been pushing.