San Diego Hospitals Running out of Morgue Space

Medical center officials say they're moving bodies to funeral homes and to the county medical examiner's storage facility

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San Diego County hospital officials say that local medical centers are running out of room to store the deceased.

The county medical examiner took on five recently deceased patients from Sharp Grossmont Hospital this past Sunday because of increasing demands on its morgue capacity, a Sharp spokesperson said.

"We’re holding maybe 5 to 10 [bodies] a week for the hospitals," says Robert Zakar, who owns East County Mortuary and serves as president of the San Diego County Funeral Directors Association.

Zakar said his funeral home regularly stores deceased patients for local hospitals, including Grossmont, when their morgues near capacity.

“We are definitely working longer hours,” Zakar said.

Sharp isn't the only local hospital system strapped for morgue space these days.

A spokesman for Scripps said that two of its hospitals recently reached capacity and had to take deceased patients to funeral homes. He said the health system is now "working with the medical examiner's office to take bodies we don't have room for in our hospital morgues."

A county spokesman said it is now storing bodies in a refrigerated trailer outside its storage facility in Kearny Mesa. The county asked for several such trailers this past spring in anticipation of a surge in COVID deaths.

"We’re going through gloves more than we ever have,” Zakar said. “We’re going through masks more than we ever have."

As unnerving as it sounds to hear hospital morgues are running out of room, Zakar said it's actually standard practice for funeral homes to store deceased patients. This is especially true during the winter months, which Zakar says have historically higher death counts due to traffic accidents, suicides and pneumonia. The stay-at-home order, however, has reduced deaths due to car accident, Zakar said.

"Although we’re getting the surge in the COVID deaths,” Zakar said, "we’re not getting those other deaths we normally see. And I think that’s what’s making it manageable."

The hardest thing, Zakar said, isn’t the number of people dying, it’s how they die.

"The biggest issue right now that we’re hearing is, 'Can we please see our loved one because the hospital didn’t let us,' ” Zakar said. “These people are dying alone, and that’s heartbreaking.”

More than 1,400 people in San Diego County have died from COVID-19. During the past two weeks, more than 120 people have died from the coronavirus each week. That’s more than four times the number of people who died the week before Thanksgiving.

With more than 65,000 deaths so far, December marks the deadliest month of the pandemic in the U.S.

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