Mortuaries in Southern California overwhelmed by COVID-19

Medics and morticians do not see relief coming in the near future.

January 11, 2021, 1:08 PM

The number of people dying from COVID-19 in Los Angeles County has skyrocketed, hospitals became overwhelmed and mortuaries have little space for bodies.

When somebody dies in LA County, family members are left calling around trying to find a funeral home that has space and most do not have any.

Rob Karlan, who owns Los Angeles Funeral Service, told ABC News that the calls he is receiving are heartbreaking.

"It's really sad. You know, people, they haven't, if it's COVID, had a chance to hug their loved ones before they die. It's unprecedented, Karlan said on the ABC News Perspective podcast. I mean, I've only been in it [mortuaries] for 25 years or so ... Never been in a situation where it's full capacity and I've never had to say to a family, 'I'm sorry. We can't help you.' I've been doing that for the last 10 days"

Trailers are parked at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center hospital amid the global coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, Jan 7, 2020, in Los Angeles.
Kirby Lee/AP

Karlan said if a family member died, they have to call around and search for professionals who are able to deal with the delicate details at the end of life.

"I'm getting calls from families that we've served before. That's very hard to tell them that I can't handle it ... I can't bring anybody in unless they take somebody out. It could be at home. It could be a convalescent home. It could be a hospital. The hospitals have their own refrigeration," Karlan said.

Because private homes and convalescent homes do not have refrigeration, and because the mortuaries have no room in their coolers, families are sometimes being told nobody can pick up their loved one's body for hours or days. The coroner does not normally handle natural deaths, so it is up to mortuaries.

"I told the family, while the body is at home, until they find somebody, which could be somebody other than me, that they should keep the body as cool as possible, maybe use dry ice. I understand dry ice is not readily available right now because it's being used to transport the vaccine," Karlan said.

Refrigerated container trailers are parked in the Los Angeles County Coroner Department parking lot at the L.A. County Medical Center amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Jan 10, 2021, in Los Angeles.
Kirby Lee/AP

The LA County coroner is now attempting to relieve some of the pressure by agreeing to pick and up and hold bodies until mortuaries are able to take them. The coroner is also adding a second temporary morgue this week as the death rate grows.

In Orange County, south of LA, the situation is similarly dire. Kimberly Worl, president of the Orange County Funeral Directors Association, said more refrigerated trucks are being brought in to hold bodies in her area.

"When you're having the influx of these death numbers, we just don't have the amount of storage space. We don't have enough embalmers. We don't have enough funeral directors to take care of everyone," Worl told ABC News.

Now, with hospitals overwhelmed, people are being told not to call 911 one unless it is a dire emergency.

According to Dr. Marc Eckstein, medical director of the Los Angeles Fire Department, the health care system is becoming severely overwhelmed.

"People going into emergency departments without life threatening problems are waiting often 12 to 18 hours in the waiting room just to get seen. We're trying to encourage people to not call 911 unless they really need to," Eckstein said.

PHOTO: Funeral director Steven Correa wears gloves as he moves the casket of Gilberto Arreguin Camacho, 58, in preparation for burial following his death due to Covid-19 at Continental Funeral Home on  Dec. 31, 2020, in East Los Angeles, Calif.
Funeral director Steven Correa wears gloves as he moves the casket of Gilberto Arreguin Camacho, 58, in preparation for burial following his death due to Covid-19 at Continental Funeral Home on Dec. 31, 2020, in East Los Angeles, Calif.
Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

Ambulances are waiting hours to unload patients in LA County and there is limited availability for ambulances.

LA Fire paramedic Tanya Crabbe said she has never seen anything like this and it's heartbreaking not to be able to do more.

"I only have so many resources with my knowledge and my experience and my certifications and most specifically my equipment that I have on my ambulances. But at the hospital, it's unavailable. I just don't have the resources that that patient may need. They need a doctor. They need a hospital bed to be taken care of. How do you explain that to the patient?" Crabbe explained. "They don't understand that. How do you explain that to the patient's family when you're looking at them and saying, 'I'm sorry, I can't help you. I only have so much I can do for you at this moment.'"

The medics and morticians who spoke to ABC News said they do not see relief coming in the near future and that the overwhelming crush of COVID-19 cases and demand for care is only getting worse.

Listen to the full report and the rest of the Perspective podcast here:

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