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Increasing COVID-19 deaths strain local mortuary capacity

Exterior shot of the Ada County Coroner's office
Courtesy Ada County Coroner

As COVID-19 patients overwhelm Idaho hospitals, the increasing number of deaths are straining the region’s mortuary capacity.

In late September, Boise Veterans Hospital nearly ran out of space in its four-person morgue. A refrigerated morgue truck for temporary use arrived last week, quadrupling the number of bodies the VA could store.

"We have not technically run out of room in our morgue to put bodies, but we did come close," spokesman Joshua Callihan wrote last week.

Acela Trucks President David Ronsen said his Bozeman, Montana-based company has been producing one new refrigerated morgue truck every day. His company has about 600 trucks rented out across the United States, costing between $9,000-$18,000 per month, depending on size.

VA boise morgue truck
Boise VA Medical Center
A temporary refrigerated morgue truck parked at the Boise Veteran's Hospital will ensure the VA has space for the increase in deceased patients due to COVID-19.

The issue many funeral homes face is that they can't process bodies of the deceased as fast as they are coming in the door.

"If the funeral homes can't get those cremations done quickly enough," said Ada County Coroner Dotti Owens, "they're going to become full and or close to capacity very, very quickly. And that's what's happened."

One of Owens's staffers has added new responsibilities helping hospitals and funeral homes find space for bodies until it's "their turn" for processing.

"We have a group that's separate of our normal staff that'll go in and just do storage and transport only," Owens said. She's also paying overtime to forensic technicians to help with transport — a duty those employees would not otherwise carry out.

Last year, the county added a 70-space external trailer, used exclusively for COVID victims. Its 40-space indoor morgue is for non-COVID deceased, a split based on Centers For Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

On a normal, non-pandemic day, Owens said, around 14 bodies come through. Now, the workload has doubled.

"It has just killed us," she said. "We're a good eight months down on [forensic pathology] reports right now, and our doctors are in there nonstop."

Her office is also running on the same budget as before.

Canyon County Deputy Coroner Steve Rhodes said a temporary morgue truck is ready — but hasn’t been needed so far.

In Twin Falls County, coroner Gene Turley said local funeral homes have been able to manage the increased capacity without the county’s help, and he does not have an external truck.

The most COVID victims to come through the Ada County Coroner's office in a single day so far is 18. Owens said she feels better prepared for the increase now compared to the early days of the pandemic, but, "If this thing triples, you know, we’ll be in trouble."

Troy Oppie is a reporter and local host of 'All Things Considered' for Boise State Public Radio News. He's also heard Saturday nights on Boise State Public Radio Music's Jazz Conversations.