Michigan mortuary response team prepares for likely surge in COVID-19 deaths

Posted at 12:03 PM, Apr 01, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-01 12:16:28-04

SOUTHFIELD, Mich. (WXYZ) — Michigan has the potential for yet another surge in death numbers.

Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, as well as White House officials, have said Michigan is several days, even weeks away from its COVID-19 peak.

Emergency response teams are gearing up for the potential of many fatalities in a short period of time, including the Michigan Mortuary Response Team (MI-MORT), comprised of professionals from MDHHS; Bureau of EMS, Trauma and Preparedness (BETP); Michigan Funeral Directors Association; Michigan State Police; Michigan State University, and more.

“Our team could respond based upon the state emergency regions to any potential death surge that may push hospital morgues or county medical examiner morgues beyond their capacity," said MI-MORT commander and funeral director at Howe-Peterson Funeral Homes, Tim Schramm.

Schramm said MI-MORT's "go team" can respond to a mass fatality situation in 3-24 hours, and the team can begin to mobilize operations within 24-48.

The last time his team deployed was in 1997.

“That really goes back to the inception of the team following the 955 crash at metro airport. There was a ComAir crash in Monroe County that we responded to," he told 7 Action News.

There's no set number of deaths that would trigger MI-MORT to deploy. Schramm said it really just depends on the county morgue or specific hospital morgue capacity at that specific time.

In New York City, hospitals are already overloaded. FEMA is sending 85 refrigerated trucks to serve as temporary morgues.

MI-MORT has two mobile emergency remains cooling (MERC) units, each has the capacity to hold 45 individuals.

Schramm said MI-MORT has the capacity for additional storage beyond that, too.

Meanwhile, this pandemic is also impacting the local funeral industry.

Anthony Yono with the Southfield Funeral Home said they've already provided services for five COVID-19 victims, and expect that number to grow.

“People just have to try to be very careful. Try to send only two people to the funeral home," he said.

In addition to limiting the number of people who come into a funeral home, more and more are offering online streaming services during this pandemic.

Funeral staff will wear protective gear when handling a COVID-19 victim, Schramm said.

“Usually it’s a direct burial. You’re not going to get traditional burial that you always wanted to. Cemeteries as well are handling things in a whole different manner," Yono told Action News.

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