Deadliest Stretch of Pandemic Strains Mortuaries and Funeral Homes

Grieving families feel more heartache as they struggle to arrange services for their deceased loved ones

NBC Universal, Inc.

The last two months have been the deadliest of the pandemic for San Diego County, and the unfortunate trend is adding stress for families trying to make arrangements at mortuaries and funeral homes for their deceased loved ones.

Since the start of the pandemic, there have been 2,619 total deaths in San Diego County, but 1,622 deaths, or 62%, were reported between Nov. 28 and Jan. 31.

One of those victims was 83-year-old Aurelio Leal who died on Jan. 31 from COVID-19-related symptoms, according to his family.

“He had so many friends. All of his friends loved him. They always said that he’s their best friends because he was so nice to everybody,” said his daughter Cecilia Leal.

Cecilia Leal, who is a pediatric nurse at Rady Children’s Hospital, said her father was not feeling well on Jan. 14.

On that date, she said he went to a hospital emergency room but was not admitted, in part, because his oxygen levels were low but acceptable.

She also pointed out a sobering reality facing all hospitals during the pandemic.

“Even though he knew he was high risk, they couldn’t admit him because they needed the bed for somebody else that needed it that day,” said Cecilia Leal.

Aurelio Leal was admitted two days later. He turned 83-years old on Jan. 19, but his family was not able to be with him or make contact via Zoom.

“That’s really heartbreaking. We didn’t get to talk to him that day,” said Cecilia Leal.

Cecilia Leal said her father struggled while receiving hi-flow oxygen. Aurelio Leal died on Jan. 31.

“It’s frustration. It’s pain. It’s sadness. It’s everything all together,” Cecilia Leal said.

To make matters even worse, Cecilia Leal said she struggled to make arrangements at a funeral home because most are operating at full capacity.

She finally found a mortuary after five phone calls. Once she notified the hospital, officials asked her to expedite the removal of her father's body.

“It makes you feel powerless. There’s nothing you can do, it’s out of your hands,” said Cecilia Leal.

Cecilia Leal wanted to use her father’s story to make a plea to everyone to follow COVID safety protocols, especially if you’re in frequent contact with an elderly loved one.

“Maybe not share a bedroom; wear a makes when you’re in the same room. If you’re watching TV together, just keep your distance. Don’t eat together,” said Cecilia Leal.

Cecilia Leal said her father was a strong, proud man who was a naturalized U.S. citizen from Mexico, where he played football and earned a chemical engineering degree.

“He enjoyed life. He was always a happy, hard worker,” she said.

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