Philadelphia is scrambling to add capacity to its morgue system before the city sees the worst of the coronavirus pandemic.
So far, the city has not been hit hard by COVID-19 related deaths — the first resident to die from the disease was announced on Wednesday — but a sharp increase is expected. If the death toll rises like it has recently in New York City, Philly’s current facilities would not be able to store all the bodies.
“We are very concerned,” Health Department spokesperson Jim Garrow said about the potential surge of COVID-19 deaths. “Extraordinary efforts are being made to expand [our] capacity.”
Presently, Philly’s morgue capacity is in the “hundreds,” Garrow said, and it fluctuates on a day-to-day basis.
The Medical Examiner’s Office in University City is where most bodies are usually stored, kept cold until loved ones are ready for burial or cremation. Additional space exists at local hospitals and some funeral homes.
To deal with possible overflow, the city has ordered refrigerated trucks as temporary holding locations — likely parked outside the current morgue. The trucks are on their way to the city, per Philly’s managing director Brian Abernathy.
The refrigerated truck method is currently also being used by New York City. There, NYC’s chief medical examiner set up the “makeshift morgues” outside hospitals in anticipation of a spike in coronavirus-related deaths. Similar mobile units were used by the city’s emergency personnel after the World Trade Center attack in 2001.
Though the truck solution may sound morbid, the alternative could be even more grim.
As the death toll rose in Italy, the country’s morgues became inundated with more bodies than they could handle, so the dead have been piled up in churches. In Spain, an old ice rink has been converted into extra morgue space.
There’s no evidence to suggest that you can contract the virus by being in the same room with the body of someone who died of COVID-19, according to the CDC.
Philly’s potential shortage of space for bodies could be compounded by social isolation, Garrow said.
“During this time of isolation, families may take longer to make arrangements,” he said, even for people who die for non-COVID-related reasons. “And it may also happen that funeral directors will become overloaded and may, as a result, take longer to pick up bodies from our facility.”
Philadelphia has confronted this issue before. In 1918, when the Spanish influenza overtook our city, the Medical Examiner’s Office only had 36 spots available in the morgue.
As hundreds of bodies crowded the space, which was then at 13th and Wood streets, officials panicked to make room. They quickly opened six supplementary morgues and stored other bodies inside cold storage plants.
It still wasn’t enough, according to the History Channel: “Some Philadelphia residents were unceremoniously tossed into mass graves that had been hollowed out by steam shovels.”