Streets, restaurants and many businesses have been empty throughout much of the COVID-19 pandemic, and fortunately another facility has, too.
Hamilton County officials constructed a temporary morgue to prepare for a potential wave of virus-related deaths, but so far they haven’t had to use it. As of April 23, the virus had led to 42 deaths in the county, a number far below the worst-case scenario.
“When they first came out with projected numbers, there were going to be 2 million (deaths nationwide) all the way down to a half million,” Hamilton County Coroner John Chalfin said. “Now, we’re getting down to more realistic numbers.”
Some areas of the U.S. have been hit harder by the virus than others, and in places like New York City, dozens of temporary morgues have been set up to handle the death toll. Marion County, the hardest-hit county in Indiana, had 225 deaths from COVID-19 as of April 23 but has not had to request additional morgue space from Hamilton County, Chalfin said.
“Indianapolis has geared up for holding 300 people in a temporary facility, so that hasn’t impacted us yet,” Chalfin said. “There’s an indication numbers are starting to drop, so I don’t think (overflow in Marion County) will come to pass. If it does, we’ll help out with whatever we can.”
Hamilton County increased its morgue capacity from two to 20 berths in 2018 when it opened a new $1 million facility at Riverview Health in Noblesville. Chalfin said the morgue was built with future growth of the county in mind, but the additional space has been useful to have during the pandemic.
At this time last year, the coroner’s office had handled 132 cases. This year, it’s handled 150 cases, but Chalfin attributes most of the increase to the county’s growth and an aging population.
Chalfin said most people who die of COVID-19 don’t end up in the county’s morgue. The county is responsible for handling deaths that occur at home, of which there had been only one related to COVID-19 as of April 20. Patients who die in a hospital or medical center usually remain in the morgue in that facility until being transferred to a funeral home.
Hospitals typically have a much smaller morgue than the county’s facility, and Chalfin said the county has offered the hospitals use of its space if needed.
Chalfin plans to keep the temporary morgue, which has space for 32 people, available until the “crisis is over” in case a future wave of infections proves more deadly than the first.
“I’m hoping that the numbers drop off and that the effort we put into the temporary morgue is good money wasted on a good intent,” Chalfin said.