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Cowlitz County morgue, funeral homes ‘maxed out’ as COVID-19 deaths surge

The Cowlitz County coroner said the country morgue and funeral homes are over capacity and staff are “being creative” to maintain cold storage.

LONGVIEW, Wash. — A recent increase in COVID-19 deaths has overwhelmed Cowlitz County's storage capacity, prompting county commissioners to grant emergency permission for the coroner to buy a refrigeration trailer.

Coroner Dr. Tim Davidson said Wednesday afternoon county commissioners gave him permission to spend more than $70,000 to purchase an 18-foot refrigerated trailer that holds up to 16 bodies until a new morgue is ready to move into in early October.

At least eight county residents died of COVID-19 between Aug. 31 and Sept. 6, according to Cowlitz County Health and Human Services. Seven of the residents had been hospitalized, the department said.

Davidson said the morgue and all the county’s funeral homes are “maxed out on their storage capabilities.” Altogether, the facilities can typically hold 45 bodies. Right now they have about 65.

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“We need to get at least one, if not two refrigeration trailers brought into the county,” Davidson said during Tuesday’s Board of Commissioners meeting.

The Cowlitz County morgue can hold 10 bodies. Over the past weekend it housed 19 bodies, Davidson said.

"We're overwhelmed, my people are exhausted," Davidson said. "We're doing the best we can to maintain the dignity of the deceased and get them back to their loved ones so they can continue as a family."

The new morgue under construction can hold 50 bodies in cold storage. Davidson said PeaceHealth St. John Medical Center doesn’t have any cold storage.

Randy Querin, a spokesperson for PeaceHealth St. John Medical Center, said the hospital had more than 60 COVID-19 cases last week, an all-time high.

Querin said the number of cases was in the single digits in the late spring, with no cases on June 3.

Today, the ICU is full. Overnight, non-emergency procedures have been rescheduled and the hospital has set up a tent to handle extra patients, if needed.

Cowlitz County's Deputy Health Officer Dr. Steven Krager said the number of COVID-19 cases in the county is at "the highest rate ever."

He said the best way to keep people out of the hospital, or the morgue, is to increase the county's vaccination rate.

According to the state's Department of Health, 52% of the county's population has received at least one dose of the vaccine.

"It is frustrating, to be completely honest," Krager said. "I hope this is a little bit of a wakeup call for people. I don't know how much more real you can get than our morgue filling up with people." 

At least two counties in Oregon requested refrigerated trucks last month to hold bodies because of the rapidly increasing COVID-19 death rate.

Hospitals in Washington state have been under an incredible amount of strain in recent weeks as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations rose exponentially through the month of August due to the delta variant.

The Washington State Hospital Association (WSHA) reported 251 patients in state hospitals were on ventilators Tuesday morning, which is a 34% increase in just one week. During a press conference Tuesday, WSHA President Cassie Sauer said even with a lag in reporting due to the Labor Day holiday, there was a 7% weekly increase of COVID-19 patients in hospitals, now totaling 1,674 across the state.

The state has far surpassed its previous record of about 1,100 hospitalizations set during last winter’s COVID-19 surge. As of Aug. 30, there were more than 1,500 hospitalized due to the virus, the equivalent of multiple Harborview Medical Centers at capacity.

There have been at least 9,170 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Cowlitz County since the start of the pandemic, according to Washington State Department of Health (DOH) data from September 6. DOH data shows 137 Cowlitz County residents have died from COVID-19.