Refrigerated truck could become makeshift morgue if COVID-related deaths in Hancock Co. continue to rise

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HANCOCK COUNTY, Ind. – As the number of people dying from COVID-19 in the State of Indiana increases, coroner’s offices in some counties are prepared for the possibility they could need additional space to store bodies.

Hancock County Coroner and owner of Stillinger Family Funeral Home, David Stillinger, said during the first wave Hancock Regional Hospital leadership was instrumental in keeping the number of fatalities related to COVID-19 down.

The hospital has a morgue, with minimal storage, and Stillinger said the coroner’s office utilizes that storage. He said it has only four spaces and is concerned with rising coronavirus cases, they could become overrun.

According to Stillinger, he began talking with the hospital about what would happen if they became overwhelmed with decedents from COVID-19 earlier in the pandemic.

The hospital purchased a refrigerated semi-trailer and got it delivered, and Stillinger said they ended up donating it to the Hancock County Coroner’s Office. It still remains in the county.

“It has sat and not been used, thank god, but I’m starting to get concerned because we’re seeing an uptick in COVID deaths at home,” he said.

Stillinger said, “It could be a mass situation where ultimately we have to utilize spaces that we wouldn’t normally use to hold remains.”

In addition to deaths in homes related to COVID-19, Stillinger said area nursing homes are overrun with COVID-19 cases, “even the employees,” he said.

“We’re in the discussion right now with some of my staff about building racks in the trailer, so if the hospital needs assistance in overrunning from decedents or funeral homes need it, we’re gonna be there and be available.”

“We have to have a plan in place. We do,” Stillinger said, “and fortunately the first wave we got a lot of things in place and here we may be utilizing things we never did utilize.”

Stillinger said there are several funeral homes with a couple spots for refrigeration in Greenfield. “That’s one of the reasons we really thought ahead and said, “we need something as a backup,’” he said.

He said he understands that is a responsibility of the funeral homes, “But right now with my funeral home, we’re almost maxed out in places to have decedents.”

“With the holidays it’s a tough time and we’re almost having more deaths come in than we can bury,” he said.

Stillinger said at his funeral home, they have plans in place to convert a large garage to a refrigerated space, if needed. “We know we have a large garage we could turn into a refrigerated system. We’ve already talked to a company and we know if we need that, they’re gonna come out and do it for us.”

He feels the coroner’s office is prepared, but hopes their plans for additional storage will not need to be utilized. “It’s so important to have plans in place and I’d rather have everything in place and not use it like we did in the first round.”

Stillinger explained the pandemic has been a trying time for staff at the coroner’s office, who have been working tirelessly.

“The hardest part is, even on the coroner’s side and funeral side, both, is watching relatively healthy people get the virus and they’re doing fairly well at home and next thing you know; their loved ones have found them dead.”

He said as a coroner’s office, they have to walk into every situation with the mindset it is a COVID case. “Hopefully my staff goes in and does it in the most professional manner and consoles that family. We explain to them the process,” said Stillinger.

But with the growing number of calls, Stillinger said in suspected COVID-19 cases, the coroner’s office is not performing an autopsy.

“As far as the coroner’s office, if we know it’s a COVID case and it has all the classic signs and things, we’re not doing autopsies because we would be overran because we’ve had a big year as is, not just from COVID, but a bigger year as a coroner’s office”

Stillinger said the hospital is at capacity, with many coronavirus cases in the ICU.

Between hospital capacity, nursing home COVID-19 cases, in-home deaths, and rising COVID numbers, he is worried for what could happen in the near future.

Stillinger said he is proud of the handling of the virus by Hancock County and Hancock Regional Hospital, “but I’m still concerned right now,” he said. “This is getting tough.”

“The next month or so I’m really concerned about,” said Stillinger.

OTHER COUNTIES:

FOX59 also reached out to the coroner’s offices in the following counties: Marion, Madison, Monroe, Morgan, Hancock, Shelby, Boone, Hendricks and Hamilton.

Monroe and Madison County Coroners both said there are no additional morgue spaces set up right now. Monroe County Coroner Joani Shields said the county has a plan in place and resources available should they be needed.

Madison County Coroner Danielle Dunnichay-Noone said the county had two refrigerated trucks in the spring. One was used as a portable cooler, but right now, there is no need in the county for even one.

She said the Madison County Coroner’s Office has had to turn away decedents who have passed away at home from becoming a coroner’s case if they have suspected COVID-19 or co-morbidities. They do not have their own designated morgue, but rather, share it with the county hospital, where there is a total of five coolers.

In Morgan County, during the first wave of the pandemic, an additional cooler was set up, but not utilized. “We do not feel it is necessary at this time,” said County Coroner Annette Butcher.

Shelby County has a plan in place, according to Bradley Rund, Shelby County Coroner, for storage of loved ones that may become victims of the pandemic. “We have the ability to safely hold up to 450 decedents if needed. This is part of our disaster management plan. We have actively practiced this plan twice this year to ensure that it is reliable,” he wrote to FOX59.

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