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Coroner, funeral homes pressed as virus-related deaths rise

With a surge in deaths due to COVID-19 since Thanksgiving, those on the receiving end say they are stressed managing the growing number of bodies.

Bodies are piling up at the morgue and at the funeral homes so much so that the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency has provided area coroners with refrigerated containment boxes, one of which is headed to a business along Arch Street, Lycoming County Coroner Charles E. Kiessling Jr. said.

Kiessling said the virus is taking its toll on him and his staff. He said the Williamsport Hospital morgue was at or near capacity for storing bodies.

To provide proper storage for the dead, the stationary trailer is expected to arrive later this week, said Ruth A. Miller, PEMA communications director.

It is one of 33 the state has available, she said.

“I hope I don’t have to use it,” Kiessling said. “Better to be prepared than not to be.”

Kiessling said deaths from COVID-19 began to spike after Thanksgiving.

The pressure from dealing with the volume of the deaths is weighing heavily on those who work outside of intensive care units and surgical units, including employees and operators of funeral homes.

“I’m downright scared,” said a funeral home associate at Allen Redmond Funeral Home, 500 W. Fourth St., of the surge in cases and deaths and her own fear of contracting the coronavirus.

The worker, who asked not to be named, said she has to wear a hair covering, face mask, and booties when retrieving deceased who succumbed to the virus. Employees are required to be covered head to toe to prevent the spread, she said.

The virus can be transmitted by deceased bodies for up to 48 hours, she said.

Another funeral director expressed how the virus has increased precaution and added pressure to the daily job.

“The uptick seen since Nov. 1 has been dramatic with about half of the deaths due to COVID-19,” said Bill Kieser, owner of Sanders Mortuary, 821 Diamond St.

Earlier in the year, when other parts of the country were dealing with COVID-19-related deaths, the region didn’t see it, Kieser said.

Asked if his business had enough personal protective equipment to keep workers from the contagion, Kieser said the equipment may be ordered but is limited.

“We’re limited to how much of it we can buy at any one time,” Kieser said.

The costs have tripled, he said. “A box of gloves that was $10 is now $20 to $30,” he said.

The tight morgue space brought up the need for alternative facilities for the coroner.

City and county officials have spoken about a public safety building, one that would have space for the coroner and morgue expansion, he said.

The pricetag has been estimated at between $10 million to $15 million.

“I know the county commissioners are talking or negotiating funding,” Kiessling said.

Kiessling said he isn’t holding his breath.

For now, he said, ensuring the proper protection of workers outside of the hospitals and that there is storage for the overflow of bodies remains the top priority.

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