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Inside A Warehouse, Region Readies Overflow Morgue For Coronavirus Surge

A construction worker paints one of two viewing rooms Friday, April 17, 2020, for families to grieve through a plexiglass window at an overflow morgue being built in Earth City.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
A construction worker paints one of two viewing rooms Friday for families to grieve through a plexiglass window at an overflow morgue being built in Earth City.

A small plexiglass window peeks from behind a curtain. 

Families will have 15 minutes to grieve through that window, looking at a loved one’s body sheathed in a barcoded body bag. Police chaplains will be at the ready to lead prayers or offer consoling words.

Construction workers under the orders of St. Louis County officials are hurriedly erecting a morgue in an industrial park warehouse, surrounded by UPS distribution facilities, in Earth City. 

When the facility, known officially as the Dignified Transfer Center, is ready next week — Tuesday is the target — it’ll be able to store up to 1,300 bodies laid on black metal shelves bought in bulk from Lowe’s. On Friday, contractors were assembling tables and shelves, painting walls and tuning up massive refrigeration systems that’ll keep rooms between 34 and 38 degrees.

“We took the design that's being used in other mortuary services," said Deanna Venker of the St. Louis Department of Public Works and project manager of the overflow morgue. “So we try not to reinvent the wheel due to time constraints.”

An overflow morgue being built in Earth City will be able hold up to 1,300 bodies of regular funeral and morgue capacity is overwhelmed.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio

Between two- and three-dozen people die in St. Louis County on a normal day, according to the county medical examiner. Regular funeral businesses can handle those numbers. 

If COVID-19 causes a spike in deaths in the coming weeks, as is predicted, and health care and funeral systems become overwhelmed, then this morgue would serve as a storage facility until capacity returns to normal.

Chaplains and county workers are trying to make the facility as “dignified” as possible, but there’s only so much that’s possible under a weeklong construction timeline and strict social distancing rules that will dictate how loved ones gather and pay respects to the deceased. 

“As this center was conceived, the question was, 'How can we make it possible for families to have some kind of spiritual experience with their loved one and yet not violate any of the rules for personal safety and health and all of that for everyone else?” said Rabbi Mark Shook, a police chaplain. 

St. Louis County is hurriedly building an overflow morgue in an industrial park in Earth City in about a week's time.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio

County health officials hope this facility will end up a grand exercise that never has to be used, but they also strike more of a “when,” rather than “if,” tone.

“If it was not used at all, if no one died above the excess, we don’t want a bunch of people to die, so that would be very nice if that happened,” said Dr. Mary Case, the St. Louis County medical examiner. “We just don’t have any way to predict what number will die.”

There were 684 people being treated for COVID-19 in hospitals across the St. Louis metro area Friday, according to the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force. Since the outbreak began, 143 people in the region have died. The task force predicts the number of COVID-19 cases will peak next week or the one after.

“I think the reality is, is you’re going to see some cases here,” said Robert Lonning, a funeral home director consulting on the morgue’s construction. 

The morgue is being built at a cost of $2 million, split between St. Louis, St. Charles, Jefferson and Franklin counties. Officials said the federal government may reimburse some or all of the expense through emergency funding. Bodies from the four counties as well as St. Louis city could be sent here, if need be.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

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