An empty casket sits in the Johnson Funeral Home on April 16, 2020.(Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

As the latest Covid surge has increased the strain on Salem hospitals, local morgues are also being stretched to capacity.

In early September, Cheryl Wolf issued a grim update during a public policy meeting of the Salem Chamber of Commerce.

The Salem Health CEO said the hospital signed a contract for a refrigerated truck to store bodies because of the number of people dying of Covid inside the hospital.

Though the hospital hasn't had to use the truck yet, it's an indication of a higher-than-usual number of deaths the hospital has seen recently because of the pandemic.

In August, 113 people died at Salem Hospital 30 of them from Covid, spokeswoman Lisa Wood said.

Pre-Covid, she said the hospital averaged 73 deaths per month.

Salem Hospital has its own on-call system with local funeral homes when people die at the hospital.

Its morgue has space for four people.

“When we have only one open spot left in our morgue, our process is to work with our local funeral homes to request a more expedited pick-up. Our trigger for needing to bring the refrigerated truck onsite is when our local funeral homes are unable to meet this increased demand. To date, we have been fortunate that our funeral homes have been able to support us by responding promptly,” said Lisa Wood, Salem Health spokesperson.

Rob Anderson, Marion County’s chief medical-legal investigator, said deaths have been increasing but so far funeral homes have been able to keep up.  

The county doesn’t have a morgue, so it relies on local funeral homes to store and cremate people who have died in instances like motorcycle crashes or homicides. The medical examiner isn’t responsible for people who die of Covid who are under the care of a doctor.

He said the county went through a “what if” scenario to determine how much capacity there was locally if there was a huge influx of people dying from Covid.

Anderson said the most the county could store would be 250 across all the funeral homes.

“That would be maxing out stacking people on shelves. That’s a worst-case scenario but we haven’t even come close to that,” he said.

Tom Golden at Virgil T. Golden Funeral Services said August was a busy month for the funeral home as it is seeing more Covid deaths from people who are younger.

“We have been at near capacity and concerned about our ability to serve families,” he said.

“No question there’s been an issue with capacity throughout the state,” said Wally Ordeman, executive director of the Oregon Funeral Directors Association.

He said he hasn’t heard that specifically about Marion County, but the news about a refrigerated truck points to things ramping up.

“When input is swift and output is slow you have capacity issues,” he said.

He said the slowdown could be caused by waiting to get a body released by the medical examiner’s office or getting a doctor to commit to signing a death certificate.

About 80% of Oregonians get cremated, meaning they need to be kept cold before that process can happen. Embalmed bodies don’t need to be refrigerated, said Ordeman, meaning funeral homes could ask families to embalm their loved ones if capacity continues to be an issue.

The slowdown can cause a ripple effect, because if a funeral home that’s on call with the medical examiner’s office is full, they have to move to the next on the list.

But so far, Andersen said the county has been able to manage.

Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected]

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