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Regional Interests

‘Exceeding capacity’: 2 Oregon counties seek help storing bodies, as COVID-19 deaths surge

Last weekend, two Oregon counties wrote urgent letters to state emergency managers. They were requesting refrigerated trucks because their hospitals, funeral homes and crematoriums were exceeding their body storage capacity.

Andrew Phelps is the director of the Oregon Office of Emergency Management. He spoke with OPB’s Tiffany Camhi.

Tiffany Camhi: Can you tell me a little bit more about what you heard from the emergency managers in Tillamook and Josephine counties over the weekend?

Andrew Phelps: Obviously, we’re seeing statewide impacts due to the resurgence of COVID and the delta variant. But in Tillamook County, they found themselves already exceeding capacity for their ability to store decedents — folks who had passed away in Tillamook County. So they were beyond the tipping point and needed an emergency solution to meet that immediate need. Josephine County, on the other hand, was a little bit more in the getting-concerned phase. They saw where things were trending in their county, in that part of the state, and wanted to ensure before they hit that capacity that they had the ability to respectfully handle remains.

Camhi: So it sounds like you were able to coordinate getting refrigerated trucks to Tillamook and Josephine counties. What are the statewide emergency plans for situations that result in mass fatality events? I’m thinking things like earthquakes. ... And have those plans helped when dealing with this current surge in COVID-19 deaths?

Phelps: All emergencies, by statute, are managed at the local level until local capacity is exceeded. We are starting to see that, especially with specific areas of response in parts of the state. When it comes to mass fatality planning, we do have as a component of our state’s emergency operations plan, a mass fatality plan. The bulk of that plan really focuses on ensuring we have the capacity to do a couple of things: cause of death investigations, which can become really important after a large disaster. And then identification of remains and fatality identifications.

Those two issues aren’t necessarily at play here with COVID. When folks are hospitalized, the cause of death is investigated by the hospital. Very often we know what type of illness the folks were hospitalized with and we typically have pretty good identification of who the decedent is. This really becomes a logistical operation for us to make sure we can handle the capacity again to treat the remains of the decedents with respect and dignity and make sure that we don’t create any other challenges or issues in our communities with a surge of fatalities when we’re exceeding the capacity to effectively store fatalities.

Camhi: On that note of treating people with respect and dignity: There are a lot of religions that call for burying or cremating bodies within a short timeline. How do you plan to accommodate those needs?

Phelps: Well, we haven’t received any reports of cemeteries or mortuary services running into challenges with meeting the cultural or religious expectations of decedents. I do know that the Oregon Health Authority continues to work with faith-based communities to ensure culturally sensitive and specific and appropriate and respectful treatment of anyone who passes away here in the state of Oregon.

Camhi: What do you want Oregonians to take away from the situation that we’re in now?

Phelps: I think the biggest takeaway here is that we’re exactly in the situation we were trying to avoid at the start of this pandemic: overwhelming our medical system and certainly overwhelming our mortuary system. There are many outcomes folks can experience through COVID. The best way to avoid hospitalization or being hospitalized for a long time is to get vaccinated. Our experts are telling us what this disease is doing to our communities, how it’s impacting folks and and providing some pretty specific steps that people can take to protect themselves and to protect their families. And it’s incumbent upon each of us to evaluate that information and do all we can to protect ourselves, our families in our community.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting