State ready to help Valley counties in case of COVID-19 death surge

Thursday, December 31, 2020
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The state's mutual aid mass fatality system can help counties with storage and distribution if the number of COVID-19 deaths spikes.

TULARE COUNTY, Calif. (KFSN) -- Not knowing how many lives would be claimed by COVID-19, the Tulare County Coroner's Office decided it would be best to accept the donation of two refrigerated trailers earlier this year.

The trucks could take on bodies from overwhelmed hospitals or funeral homes during a surge.

Thankfully, they haven't been used yet.

"We have them ready to go," Tulare County Sheriff's Lt. Kevin Kemmerling said. "We make sure that they're up and running on a bi-weekly basis."

Lt. Kemmerling says they can store at least 100 bodies in the trailers for an extended period of time.

Tulare County has seen nearly 100 new COVID-19 deaths since mid-November, a quarter of the county's total deaths since the start of the pandemic.

But Kemmerling says local mortuaries and hospital morgues are currently managing their space on their own.

"We're not expecting to do it this time but the sheriff's department is prepared if we need to go down that road," he said.

When it comes to what he calls decedent capacity, Cal OES Law Enforcement Chief Mark Pazin says southern California is the immediate concern.

Los Angeles County surpassed 10,000 total COVID deaths on Wednesday.

It's why two additional refrigeration trucks are headed that way.

"What has occurred is that these deaths have been so condensed, they've been so rapid over the past few weeks," Pazin said. "The governor was clear and concise and really ahead of the curve as far as we need to start the Cal OES mass fatality management program."

On Wednesday, Pazin wrote a letter to hospitals and county coroners about the state's mutual aid mass fatality system, reminding them that if a facility is near or at capacity for storing bodies, they can ask for help, starting with a call to the county coroner.

Pazin says the state could also coordinate the distribution of other resources, including body bags and shelves for the refrigerated trailers.

"So we're keeping a close eye on it," Pazin said. "All the sheriff-coroners and medical examiners have my phone number and the first little hint that they're going to need some assistance, we will be there for them."