With 328 COVID-19 deaths already in December, Regional Health Authorities (RHAs) are now in contingency mode, sending corpses to funeral homes as mortuaries are over capacity.Guardian Media learned yesterday that the mortuary at the Port-of-Spain General Hospital reached its limit of 25 for COVID-19 on Monday.
These corpses are kept separate from others to avoid contamination. If not, it could affect how families of non-COVID-19 victims can bury their dead.
As soon as COVID-19 corpses leave the San Fernando General Hospital, approximately five others enter the morgue.
The mortuary had 48 corpses, 18 above its capacity. The Point Fortin Hospital, a fully COVID-19 care facility, is filled. For the past three weeks, the South-West Regional Health Authority (SWRHA) used Elite Funeral Home in Point Fortin to store excess bodies.
Elite’s managing director, Reynold Porter-Lee, said the funeral home stored bodies for the SWRHA before COVID-19.
However, Porter-Lee said these requests increased in the past few weeks. He said there is no storage issue as most of the COVID-19 deaths were not people from the borough, and casualties among the residents were low. He explained that the hospital would call the home and make arrangements for storage.
“They would call us and let us know they would be bringing this body to be stored until they make contact with the family. Then they would come back to take the body, and the family and funeral home would retrieve it,” Porter-Lee said.
With December being the third deadliest month of the pandemic, the SWRHA acknowledged it has a higher than usual number of total corpses to manage at its San Fernando and Point Fortin mortuaries.
However, it said the mortuaries were managing the surge and storage was not yet overwhelmed.
“Mitigation measures of closer liaison with funeral homes for expediting outsourced storage, closer liaison with families to ensure timely arrangements to take their deceased loved ones from the mortuary, and following procedures to address removal and burial of unclaimed bodies are all being actively pursued at this time,” the South West Regional Health Authority (SWRHA) has said.
In other communities with higher death rates, it gets more complicated.
Carlyle Mulchan, director at Dass Funeral Home in Marabella and Chaguanas, said most people request cremations for COVID-19 victims. As a result, there is a lengthy waiting time. Dass said anyone who dies this week and their family requests crematorium services would have to wait until January because of packed schedules.
It means bereaved families could spend the Christmas season with the pain of knowing their loved one is languishing in a refrigerator.
“Imagine we are at December 15, and if you call any crematorium facility, we are getting dates for cremations on January 2 and 3. How can we sustain 20-25 more COVID-19 deaths with that backup of the crematoriums?” Dass asked.
He again pleaded with Government to allow open-air pyre cremations of COVID-19 victims.
He said with cremation sites like the Shore of Peace in South Oropouche able to host six services per day, permitting this would ease storage at the homes and hospitals.
With the high usage of crematoriums, any breakdown could stall funerals, exacerbating the issue.
Keith Belgrove, president of the Association of Funeral Home Professionals, said the Government stopped cremations of COVID-19 victims because people were not cooperating with the guidelines.
He said there are seven crematoriums in Trinidad that can cremate over 1300 bodies per month.
He believes that while RHAs and funeral homes are experiencing some stress, the storage issue is manageable.
Like Mulchan, Belgrove believes there could be an acceleration of COVID-19 infections following the Christmas holidays as people shop and gather for various activities. He said many of the funeral homes increased storage during to pandemic by installing new refrigerators. The Association is now working with the Ministry of Health to open a new facility in Central Trinidad in January. This facility can store up to 96 corpses.
“The Association is working closely with the Ministry and is creating a facility in Central where we will house persons who have died of COVID-19. In fact, we are hoping to remove the demand from the RHAs, and we will house all COVID-19 bodies there for the Ministry of Health,” Belgrove said.