Oakland Co. officials consider ice arenas to store COVID-19 bodies

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Pontiac — Faced with sudden demand from hospitals looking for space to store the bodies of COVID-19 victims, the Oakland County Medical Examiner's Office is considering some unusual options: refrigerated trucks and ice arenas.

A morgue spokesman said Wednesday concern about potential demand has caused him to look into ordering a 53-foot-long refrigerated tractor-trailer on standby. And he is also reaching out to area ice arenas should additional space be needed because they are large empty spaces that are kept cool enough for cadaver storage.

“I hope we don’t have to go the route of ice arenas,” said Casimir Miarka, administrator at the Oakland County Medical Examiner’s Office, which has the capacity for 60 bodies.

Brad Martin, a manager at Lakeland Arena in Waterford Township, said Wednesday he was contacted by the medical examiner's office and responded that he did not want the facility to be used to store bodies. 

Martin, whose facility is a designated emergency center, said it, like others in the area, is closed under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's stay-at-home order. He said he had talked with several other arena managers who had been contacted by the medical examiner's office. 

"I don't know of anyone ready to do it," he said. "We have already stripped out our ice and shut down refrigeration because we have to be closed to the public. But even if we were up and running, I don't know if we would be ready to become a morgue. You never know what kind of an impact that might have in your future business."

Miarka said even using the county morgue for hospital cadaver storage is unusual and borne of desperate times. “These are natural deaths, and we normally wouldn’t even be processing them," he said.

Under normal conditions, hospitals are able to store up to a dozen cadavers for pickup by funeral homes.

“But these aren’t normal times,” Miarka said. “They (hospitals) are running out of room, and we want to provide help.”

Miarka said at least two of the county’s 23 hospitals have already reached their storage capacity, and he expects more to follow. He declined to identify them.

“We have had two (bodies) brought to us this morning and have been told to expect at least eight more today,” he said Wednesday. “I have also been contacted by a second hospital whom I haven’t talked with yet, but I expect they have the same problem.”

Miarka said the medical examiner has two refrigerated storage units each capable of storing 24 bodies. He is also inquiring about a tractor-trailer truck that could be moved to one of the area’s larger hospitals. All of the units can be kept at 37 degrees Fahrenheit.

But space isn't the only challenge the morgue faces.

“We need to keep our regular workload separate from the COVID cases,” Miarka said. “We have autopsies to do and need to determine cause of deaths in non-COVID before releasing them to next of kin and funeral homes. We aren’t doing any autopsies or handling at all of the COVID-19 cases. We are simply providing a temporary area of storage.”

The storage shortage is compounded by families who are delaying funerals because of stay-at-home restrictions and social distancing practices, officials say.

Miarka said his co-workers knew that “it was only a matter of time” before they would be involved in helping during the pandemic.

“We have been doing planning on how to respond and what we could offer,” he said.

He said in recent weeks, county medical examiners have found five cases of COVID-19 among 34 bodies brought in with undetermined causes of death.

According to Oakland County’s health department as of Wednesday, there have been 5,580 cases of COVID-19 across the county and 388 deaths from the virus.

Officials at the Macomb County Medical Examiner's Office said area hospitals are handling all storage in that county. The Wayne County Medical Examiner's Office administrator did not respond to calls or emails for comment Wednesday.

Ruthanne Sudderth, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Health and Hospital Association, said storage concerns have been a topic of conversation for several weeks among officials from the state's 157 acute care and specialty hospitals.

"It's a sad situation that is compounded by a number of factors," she said. "Hospitals are going out and renting or buying refrigerated trucks or relying on their county morgues. The system has never been built to handle something like this, and at a time when we can't hold funerals due to health orders, families are unable to make arrangements with funeral homes."

Phil Duoma, executive director of the 1,100-member Michigan Funeral Directors Association, said most funeral homes have limited storage space and some of his members have purchased or rented refrigeration trucks to increase their capacity.

But Duoma said he knew of no funeral homes refusing or being unable to pick up COVID-19 victims from hospitals but a variety of factors are preventing families from completing the traditional grieving process.

"It is up to every family to decide," he said. "Because of restrictions, we can't have funerals right now, and in some of these cases, next of kin might be hospitalized or quarantined due to exposure to the deceased and unable to make decisions at this time."


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