Washoe County coroner fears no morgue space if virus not curtailed
RENO — “This is an awful question, but how many bodies does a freezer cooler hold?”
A Reno newspaper reporter posed it to the local coroner who fears the recent explosion of coronavirus cases could soon overtake not only northern Nevada’s ability to treat the sick, but also store the dead.
COVID-19 is spreading so fast in Nevada that someone contracts it every minute on average and someone else is dies from it about every two hours.
The vast majority of cases and deaths have been in Clark County — the state’s most populous county that includes Las Vegas. But Washoe County, including Reno-Sparks, has recorded 59 COVID-19 deaths the last 30 days — half of those over this past week.
If current trends continue, Washoe County Medical Examiner Laura Knight said the death rate could potentially double over the next two to three weeks. She’s paying close attention because she’s responsible for safe keeping of the victims at the county morgue.
“I could see a scenario where we double and double and then within about a six-week period, we could potentially be filling our capacity,” she told reporters Wednesday.
Knight is working to expedite cremations at funeral homes and mortuaries, many already at 90% capacity, and transfer some bodies to the county’s 200-capacity facility.
It’s currently only 10% full. But fearful of death surges that typically follow infections by two to three weeks, she’s making contingency plans to rent storage units like they did shortly after the pandemic’s outbreak last spring when images of trucks filled with bodies in New York first drew national attention.
“Refrigerated shipping containers,” she explained Wednesday. “We had those briefly in April and May. They didn’t ever have to be used, thankfully, but we didn’t know at that time what our surge was going to bring.”
She never imagined six months later she’d be crunching budget numbers again to figure out how big of units the county could afford.
Nearly half of Nevada’s 142,239 COVID-19 cases to date have occurred since September — fully one-fourth of those in November and 10% over just the last week.
“We have COVID-19 exploding in our community. It is spreading rapidly,” Washoe County Health District Officer Kevin Dick said.
“We have exponential growth going on,” he said. “We have four times as many people in Washoe County that are actively infected with COVID-19 as we did a month ago.”
Gov. Steve Sisolak has been most concerned about statewide hospitalizations, which set another record Wednesday with 1,414 COVID-19 patients. Health officials said it’s enough people to fill nine commercial airliners.
Sisolak, a Democrat, has been reluctant to order business closures like he did in March. But he announced the state’s most expansive mask mandate to date Sunday and reduced the capacity at casinos, restaurants, bars and many other businesses from 50% to 25%.
In Washoe County, nearly half of all the coronavirus cases since the onset of the pandemic have been confirmed in just the past month, a total now of 22,726. The county’s seven-day moving average for new cases has more than tripled since Oct. 25 to 513 on Wednesday. Active cases grew during that period from 1,872 to 7,864.
The county morgue that also serves a much of rural northern Nevada and parts of Northern California typically has 20 to 60 bodies in storage on any given day. But given the shrinking space at funeral homes, Knight said she’s pursuing cooler rentals as a contingency.
“The typical refrigerated container that we would be renting is going to hold something like 50 bodies,” Knight said.
Larger auxiliary units can be built to any size, but are more expensive so she’s focused on ones that would “provide us capacity as needed but wouldn’t be oversized because, of course, you have to refrigerate it. That is an electrical draw and cost all the time.”
And to answer the reporter’s question:
“If we used all of the space as it is right now with racks and storage trays, it’s about 100 can fit and still be able to maneuver but we could put in more if we needed to,” she said. “I would urge the community, let’s try not go to that next scenario.”