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Mortuaries in southern California overwhelmed by COVID-19

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By ERIC MOLLO, ALEX STONE ABC News

(LOS ANGELES) – In the past few weeks, the number of people dying from COVID-19 in Los Angeles County has skyrocketed. Hospitals are already overwhelmed, and mortuaries have little space for bodies. When somebody dies in L.A. County, family members are left calling around trying to find a funeral home that has space and most do not have any.

Rob Karlan owns Los Angeles Funeral Service. He told ABC’s Alex Stone on the ABC News Perspective podcast that the calls he is receiving are heartbreaking:

“It’s really sad. You know, people, they haven’t, if it’s COVID, had a chance to hug their loved ones before they die. It’s unprecedented. I mean, I’ve only been in it [mortuaries] for 25 years or so… Never been in a situation where it’s full capacity and I’ve never had to say to a family, ‘I’m sorry. We can’t help you.’ I’ve been doing that for the last ten days”

He was able to speak with Alex during the one free moment he had during the day. He talked as he drove a body to a cemetery.

Karlan says if a family member passes away, they have to call around and search for professionals who are able to deal with the delicate details at the end of life.

“I’m getting calls from families that we’ve served before. That’s very hard to tell them that I can’t handle it… I can’t bring anybody in unless they take somebody out. It could be at home. It could be a convalescent home. It could be a hospital. The hospitals have their own refrigeration.”

However, private homes and convalescent homes do not have refrigeration. Because the mortuaries have no room in their coolers, families are sometimes being told nobody can pick up their loved one’s body for hours or days. The coroner does not normally handle natural deaths, so it is up to mortuaries.

“I told the family, while the body is at home, until they find somebody, which could be somebody other than me, that they should keep the body as cool as possible, maybe use dry ice. I understand dry ice is not readily available right now because it’s being used to transport the vaccine.”

In Orange County, south of L.A., the situation is similarly dire. Kimberly Worl is the president of the Orange County Funeral Directors Association. Worl says more refrigerated trucks are being brought in to hold bodies in her area.

“When you’re having the influx of these death numbers, we just don’t have the amount of storage space. We don’t have enough embalmers. We don’t have enough funeral directors to take care of everyone.”

Now, with hospitals overwhelmed, people are being told not to call 911 one unless it is a dire emergency. Dr. Marc Eckstein is a medical director of L.A. City Fire. He says the healthcare system is becoming severely overwhelmed:

“People going into emergency departments without life threatening problems are waiting often 12 to 18 hours in the waiting room just to get seen. We’re trying to encourage people to not call 911 unless they really need to.”

Ambulances are waiting hours to unload patients in L.A. County and there is limited availability for ambulances in the county. L.A. Fire paramedic Tanya Crabbe says she has never seen anything like this and that it is heartbreaking not to be able to do more:

“I only have so many resources with my knowledge and my experience and my certifications and most specifically my equipment that I have on my ambulances. But at the hospital, it’s unavailable. I just don’t have the resources that that patient may need. They need a doctor. They need a hospital bed to be taken care of.  How do you explain that to the patient? They don’t understand that. How do you explain that to the patient’s family when you’re looking at them and saying, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you. I only have so much I can do for you at this moment.’”

Medics and morticians tell Stone they do not see relief coming in the near future and that the overwhelming crush of cases of COVID-19 and demand for care is only getting worse.

Listen to Alex’s full report and the rest of the Perspective podcast here.Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

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