The Sunbelt states buckling under COVID-19 have started making preparations for the worst to come: They’re ordering extra morgues.
The mobile, refrigerated morgue units are supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency or on the private market, giving hospitals and local public health departments extra capacity to store the dead.
Local news reports from Texas and Arizona say that officials and hospital chains have begun in recent weeks to order extra, mobile morgues. The reasons differ, but they either come as a response to death rates starting to overwhelm storage capacity for the dead or as local officials anticipate and prepare for the same.
FEMA told TPM that it is sending 14 “mortuary support units” to Texas in response to a July 11 request from the state’s department of emergency management. The units, a FEMA spokesperson said, “are in transit and should arrive at the state by early next week.”
Local officials in Texas have been agitating for the mobile morgues as death counts rise.
“I am now having to order additional body bags and morgue trailers. People have to understand how real it is,” Barbara Canales, Judge of Texas’s Nueces County, told a Corpus Christi TV station last week.
The orders mark the pandemic’s severity. After weeks of rising cases, followed by rising hospitalizations, hard-hit states’ death rates have also started to rise — a lagging indicator that reflects the time it takes to die of the virus and the stress that healthcare systems face in treating waves of patients.
Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego (D) mistakenly said last week that the city had maxed out on its morgue capacity.
She was wrong, but not by much: the Maricopa County medical examiner reported that, as of this past weekend, it had filled 96 percent of its morgue capacity and was seeking refrigerated trucks to store more of the deceased.
Since then, Maricopa County has reportedly moved to add room for 50 bodies. At the same time, Abrazo Health, an Arizona hospital chain, told a local news outlet on Tuesday that it had ordered extra refrigerated storage to handle the COVID-19 surge.
As with much of the rest of the pandemic, it’s not clear what role the federal government is playing in this. FEMA told TPM that neither Arizona nor Florida had filed official requests for morgues, as both face rising death rates.
The mobile morgues evoke the scenes of death that gripped health care facilities in New York City in late March and early April, where nearly every hospital had a FEMA-ordered refrigerated morgue trailer sitting outside.
FEMA told TPM that its agency followed policies consistent with the rest of the Trump administration’s response, in which the federal government steps back from coordination and leaves the states to address the crisis with piecemeal federal support.
“Consistent with the principles of locally executed, state managed and federally supported emergency response, FEMA Regional Response Coordination Centers work closely with their state, local, tribal and territorial counterparts to determine the type and level of support required to ensure mission success,” the spokesperson said.
In Texas, two counties have reportedly agreed to share the single, 50-body FEMA trailer that one was provided last month. Meanwhile, in Brownsville, Texas, county officials have said that they bought a large refrigerated trailer to store extra bodies as excess capacity, should COVID-19 get bad enough in the area.
Epidemiologists and modelers told TPM last week that the country would likely see hundreds of thousands more deaths this year.