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COVID is Stretching Lancaster County's Morgue


Death is not the end of things when it comes to COVID. Not for coroners, anyway.

“People hear ‘death’ and it carries the connotation that it’s over,” says Lancaster County Coroner Karla Deese. “There’s so much more that occurs.”

Most people likely haven’t thought about how COVID deaths have changed things for coroners. In Lancaster County, where the morgue’s capacity for storage is 12, deceased people are adding up.

A lot of it has to do with how families want a funeral to go. If the option is cremation, that’s straightforward enough, Deese says. But if a family wants a more traditional burial, a person needs to be kept around for the funeral.

The problem is, funeral homes have greatly changed their schedules and attendance rules.

Funerals are not just happening differently in the era of COVID, they’re taking longer to get to in the first place. The reason?

“A lot of family members are positive also,” Deese says. “They can’t go to funeral homes.”

Nor can they visit a county morgue.

But living family members are not the only issue. There’s the unsettling fact that just because a person has died, it doesn’t mean the coronavirus has. Deese says processing bodies of COVID victims is especially tricky because while a person might be deceased, the disease is often still very much alive in their blood.

And their lungs.

“We’re standing directly over them,” she says. “When we move them, they push air out.”

This has put coroners in a vulnerable spot. Deese and her deputies test every body for COVID, but as coroners, they also have to retrieve recently deceased patients from hospitals and assisted living facilities. That requires special, hermetically sealed bags to remove patients in a way that doesn’t infect medical staff members or other patients.

It’s a delicate process, she says, and one that puts her and her staff in direct, intimate contact with those who can still spread the coronavirus.

“We’re in the ER with other COVID patients too,” Deese says.

What’s worse, with the number of COVID cases and deaths soaring following the holidays, the number of deceased people coming to the Lancaster County morgue is on the upswing.

“We were having two COVID deaths a week,” Deese says. “Now it’s two a day.”

According to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, Lancaster County averaged one to three COVID-related deaths per week for most weeks since April, apart from a spike of eight deaths in August and five weeks throughout the year that saw four and five deaths. The weeks of Dec. 19 and 26 saw six and seven deaths, respectively. Deaths for this week are not yet published.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.