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Funeral directors overwhelmed by COVID-19 death toll

“It is incredibly overwhelming for us and the families,” one funeral director said. “We of course do not want to prolong their grief.”
Image: Funeral director, body, Brooklyn
A funeral director and a Wycoff Heights Medical Center employee transport a body in New York on Wednesday.Mary Altaffer / AP

As the coronavirus pandemic threatens more communities, funeral directors say they can’t keep up with the growing death toll that has already claimed more than 5,000 lives in the United States.

Death care workers are considered essential in many states with stay-at-home orders. But with panic buyers hoarding cleaning products, like bleach and disinfectant, and personal protective equipment in short supply, funeral workers are fighting for more safeguards.

Stephen Kemp, director of Kemp Funeral Home & Cremation Services in Southfield, Michigan, said Thursday his business has the remains of 13 people who died from COVID-19. His wife was also infected with the virus and is self-quarantining in their home.

Each body that comes into his funeral home must be thoroughly cleaned to ensure there is no risk of spreading the infection. Embalming helps with that, he said. According to the CDC, “there is currently no known risk associated with being in the same room” with someone who died of coronavirus. However, first responders and funeral home workers could contract COVID-19 if they touch a surface where the virus still lives and then touch their eyes, mouth or face, according to the CDC.

Despite the health risk, Kemp’s funeral home is facing an uphill battle when it comes to protecting employees.

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“We’re suffering from a lack of [personal protective equipment] and disinfectant even though we’re handling bodies every day,” he said. “In terms of sheer volume, it’s becoming very overwhelming.”

When the virus first hit, Kemp couldn’t find Lysol or bleach. The products “became invisible,” he said. He eventually tracked down bleach through his fluid supplier and diluted some hydrogen peroxide to use as a disinfectant. Kemp continues to worry about what could happen if he runs out of supplies.

“If we don’t have masks, we would have to shut down,” he said.

In New York, which has the most confirmed coronavirus cases anywhere in the U.S., funeral directors say they can’t keep up with demand.

“We are experiencing double the call volume,” Amanda Vaphides of Cherubini McInerney Funeral Home on Staten Island told NBC New York. “We have had to add additional staff.”

The extra hands are not enough, however. New York cemeteries are limiting the number of bodies they can accept each day, creating a bottleneck effect for funeral homes, Vaphides said. The backlog extends to hospitals. Doctors are unable to certify death certificates right away, which means hospitals cannot release remains to families. Some loved ones are forced to wait several days, according to Vaphides.

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“It is incredibly overwhelming for us and the families,” she said. “We of course do not want to prolong their grief.”

Kemp said he worked with a family that could not move ahead with burial plans because the next of kin was also hospitalized with COVID-19. In another case, loved ones could not access the required paperwork because county offices were closed and employees were working from home.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “We’re doing what we can.”