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Detroit-area hospitals need refrigerated trucks for the coronavirus dead

Detroit's Sinai-Grace Hospital made national headlines this week after CNN showed photographs allegedly leaked by staff of white body bags piled up in empty rooms and propped on chairs amid the coronavirus surge.

The revelations come as metro Detroit hospitals say they've begun storing bodies in refrigerated trucks to handle the surge.

Brian Taylor, a spokesman for the Detroit Medical Center, which includes Sinai-Grace,  told Detroit Free Press on Monday that COVID-19 "has caused significantly greater than normal mortality rates in the Detroit community."

As of Tuesday afternoon, 1,602 people in Michigan have died from COVID-19, and there were 25,635 confirmed cases, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. 

Detroit and Wayne County have the highest number of fatalities from COVID-19, with a death toll of 760 people. 

"This has resulted in capacity issues at funeral homes and morgues outside of Sinai-Grace Hospital," Taylor said. "Patients who pass away at our hospital are treated with respect and dignity, remaining on-site until they can be appropriately released."

Taylor was asked specifically about CNN's report of body bags stacked in rooms at Sinai-Grace, and said in an email:

"Like hospitals in New York and elsewhere, we have secured additional resources such as mobile refrigeration units to help temporarily manage the capacity issue caused by COVID-19."

Sinai-Grace is the only hospital in northwest Detroit and gets more ambulance traffic than any other in the region, Taylor said.

"In addition, there are a large number of nursing homes in the area surrounding the hospital," he said. "Among the patient population served by Sinai-Grace, there are extremely high rates of underlying medical conditions such [as] hypertension and diabetes, which puts people at higher risk for COVID-19. Sinai-Grace Hospital remains dedicated to its mission of providing quality compassionate care to the Detroit community.”

Other metro Detroit hospitals also told the Free Press they have begun storing the bodies of the dead in refrigerated trucks. 

Beaumont Health spokeswoman Beth Montalvo told the Free Press late last week that it has one refrigerated truck.

"While COVID-19 has put a strain on our hospital-based morgues, Beaumont is managing with the process for handling confirmed or suspected COVID-19 remains in a safe and respectful manner," she said. 

Dr. Betty Chu, associate chief clinical officer and chief quality officer at Henry Ford Health System, said Monday that it, too, had to find a way to accommodate the rising death toll.  

"Like other health systems in our region, we have had to find a temporary solution to navigate the sudden increase in mortality and ease the burden on funeral homes that are not equipped to handle this," Chu told the Free Press Monday.

"We do have refrigeration units that are carefully designed to provide a safe and respectful environment. Our team provides the same level of care and honor when using these units as we do inside our own facilities and we will continue to steward this mission until all those that we have lost can be moved to their final resting place."

The Free Press reported last week that the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office was in the process of getting four refrigerated trucks to handle an expected surge of COVID-19 deaths brought to the morgue in Detroit.

“We anticipate the need is going to increase as we start to hit our peak,” county spokesman Bill Nowling said. Nowling said the morgue can hold 300 bodies, and as of early last week, already had 200. The trucks can handle 35-40 bodies each.

An Oakland County spokesman told the Free Press last week that the county has also brought in a refrigerated truck.


Contact Kristen Jordan Shamus: 313-222-5997 or kshamus@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @kristenshamus. 

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