The BC Coroners Service has confirmed that at least one refrigerated morgue truck has been deployed to a site in the Fraser Health Authority region, where more than half of the province’s COVID-19 deaths have occurred since the beginning of the pandemic.
B.C. hospitals reported in November that morgues were at maximum capacity, after months of being hit by the dual health crises of the pandemic and overdose deaths related to opioids.
“Imagine you are hit by a tsunami and an earthquake at the same time,” said Dr. Jatinder Baidwan, chief medical officer of the BC Coroners Service.
To date, the Fraser Health region has reported 556 of the province’s 988 deaths caused by COVID-19. On top of that, the region — which includes the cities of Surrey, Burnaby, Abbotsford and Coquitlam — saw a record 510 overdose deaths between January and November.
Last spring a provincewide team was established to monitor and report on morgue capacity. The working group includes health officials, health authorities, the B.C. Funeral Home Association and BC Coroners Service.
The team developed a “strategic reserve” to expand existing storage space, including three refrigerated trucks — each outfitted to hold up to 46 bodies — and temporary canvas storage units.
In December the province “deployed and operationalized” one of those trucks as a “backup measure” in the Fraser Valley, according to health officials.
Baidwan confirmed at least one truck has been used in the Fraser Health region since December, but neither he nor the Ministry of Health provided further details.
Some of the canvas shelving units, which are used by the Canadian military and the United Nations in disaster zones, have been installed in some hospitals’ existing morgues to add capacity.
The first thing the working group did in the spring was map morgue capacity, creating a data dashboard to track hot spots needing support, Baidwan said.
Across B.C.’s health authorities there are a total of 1,069 short-term hospital morgue spaces, so private morgues, many connected to funeral homes, are often contracted.
Some morgues are running at 80 to 85 per cent occupancy — what he refers to as the “red zone” — and he’d like to see that reduced to 50 or 60 per cent.
“I don’t think we’ve seen cracks [in the system]. What we’ve seen is strain,” said Baidwan.
Dignity the top priority
The province hired ethicists and experts to participate in the working group to help find respectful ways to further expand hospital morgues.
Baidwan said dignity was the top priority throughout the planning process.
“I remember with horror the images I saw back in April, May last year of New York City, where there were these refrigerated trailers, and it still gives me tingles thinking about it,” he said.
“People were, I guess, doing the best they could and unfortunately, what that meant was they were just putting bodies into the base of a unit. To me, that wasn’t the right way of doing it.”
Baidwan said when the usual infrastructure for handling the dead is overwhelmed, witnesses can be traumatized.
“Society is measured by the way it stands up to adversity — and a measure of society is how it looks after its dead,” he said.
System ‘pushed to its limits’
Jason Everden, president of the B.C. Funeral Association, said storage capacity has been an issue for years and the pandemic has simply shone a light on the problem.
Ngaio Davis, founder of Koru Cremation Services in Vancouver, says the system for dealing with the dead has been “pushed to its limits.”
“The coroners service for a number of years now has been scrambling to try to find enough space,” said Davis.
One of her clients recently waited weeks for a body to be released for cremation, due to a delayed autopsy.
“Emotionally, it all just compounds the grief, the sadness, the anger. People are just in disbelief,” said Davis.
A rising death rate is a reality for a province with a growing population like B.C. A record 38,927 people died in B.C. between July 2019 and June 2020.