EL PASO COUNTY — Historically, the first and last quarter of a year experience the highest number of deaths. But this year, with the added stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, funeral homes are working around the clock to meet the current demand.
The Springs Funeral Services Platte location started increasing their staff numbers a couple of months ago, in preparation for this surge. News5 spoke with their Co-Owner and Executive Vice President Paul Wood, who is also a funeral director. Wood has worked in the industry for more than 40 years, and could only compare what they are currently experiencing with a past catastrophe. "Closest I've come was during the Oklahoma City Bombing," said Wood, who, at the time, was managing a funeral home only five blocks away from the bombing.
The sustained nature of the COVID-19 pandemic makes the situation particularly problematic. Wood said they haven't had time to count the exact number of clients who had COVID-19 at the time of their death, but he estimated it would be around 40%. "The number of deaths that are occurring certainly has surged to a point that it exceeds the capacity of most places," said Wood.
However, at the Platte location, Wood said they can now hold around 60 people in a respectful manner because of a recent expansion. When News5 visited on Friday, Wood estimated they currently had around 40 people at their facility.
Around two months ago, Wood said they ordered a larger refrigeration unit, which would bring their capacity up to around 100. However, the unit has been delayed by around a month because of the high demand caused by COVID-19. Wood expects they will get it in around two to three weeks.
Wood said because they began preparing for this COVID-19 surge a few months ago, they have been able to maintain their normal cremation or burial time frames. But the expansion was necessary to do so, as well as extending the hours worked by staff. Wood said days start before the sun comes up, and end late at night. "The staff is tired. They're stressed, because they're dealing with so much death. The hours are long, the emotions are long, wearing the mask and PPE for as many hours as they do is stressful and it's tedious," said Wood.
But the staff must take the health precautions seriously, to ensure they do not get infected with the virus. "The virus is still present in the body even after death. There have been some small studies that indicate that. And so our staff, we are telling them that you can move a person, they can expel air. The different treatments that we give them, there is a potential risk there as well. And so, we have to treat them as infectious," said Wood.
Along with the long hours and increased workload, Wood said they also have to adapt to public health guidelines when it comes to funeral services. Capacity limits on gatherings have forced them to start live streaming services. "They cannot grieve. They cannot have their support system the way they want... The hardest thing I've ever done in my 40 plus years, is to have to tell families and people, you can't have but 50 people, or 25 people, or whatever the limit is at the particular time there... And they understandably get angry, some of them, because it's a difficult time," said Wood.
Another locally owned funeral home in Colorado Springs, Cappadona Funeral Home, has also installed extra cooling storage so they can house more bodies if necessary. Right now, they can hold around 40, and have pretty much been staying at capacity. "It's exhausting and it's stressful. Because you still want to help every single family that you possibly can, but on the same aspect, it's hard to have so many families at the same time," said Dawn MacCallum, the office manager who also works as a funeral director.
They have also adapted to smaller services by using technology to bring people together virtually. But with the increase in their workload, they are working long days. "We are getting calls constantly throughout the day. Our staff is always on the go... We know that the morgues are full, we know the coroner's full, we know all these places are full, and all the funeral homes are full. So you know, we're trying to do our part to make sure that we're where we need to be in a timely manner," said MacCallum.
It's the first time since the start of the pandemic that the El Paso County Coroner's Office has really felt the impact. They have certainly had deaths pass through their office along the way, and have been involved in trying to help public health, but this time things are different. Every day now, they have cases either suspected of COVID-19, or confirmed positive cases. "I review every single COVID death certificate, and I have from the beginning of the pandemic. And I would go stretches in June or July where I may get one a week, or one every couple weeks. Very different than getting a dozen in a single work day," said Dr. Leon Kelly, the El Paso County Coroner.
Dr. Kelly estimated 71 COVID-19 death certificates have come across his desk since November 15. "It's a family who's grieving. It's doctors and nurses who are fighting to keep people alive," said Dr. Kelly.
Another issue contributing to the high demand at the coroner's office are staff shortages. "This is the truth about COVID. This is what it does. It makes more demands on you by increasing people who are sick and who are dying and what the community needs, but at the same time it deprives you of the staff that you need to have to get that job done," explained Dr. Kelly.
The coroner's office can hold around 100-150 bodies at a time, but that's under crisis conditions, which would mean stacking them. Dr. Kelly said hospital's capacity are generally less than 10, meaning his office is the primary way to absorb surges. "Currently my office is picking up some non-COVID cases, deaths, and then bringng them to our office purely for storage, just to relieve some of that pressure off the hospitals," said Dr. Kelly.
Dr. Kelly reassured the community that his office is doing everything they can to avoid any backups on their end. He said they are around 50% of their normal capacity as of Friday. Typically, the numbers grow over the weekend to their highest totals on Monday, and then decrease through Friday as bodies are released.
Kelly said the reason for all this preparation and focus on the amount of storage available is to avoid a brewing problem. "Once the funeral homes get backed up, they aren't able to then come to the hospitals and pick up the decedents and relieve the pressure on the hospitals from their morgues, they're not able to come to our office and pick up those bodies," said Dr. Kelly.
The county is currently requesting a refrigerated storage unit to store at the coroner's facility, in order to ease the pressure on local hospitals. Dr. Kelly said the Office of Emergency Management is working on that now, but he does not have a delivery date at the moment. The unit is not so much for overflow from the coroner's office, but rather the ease of use for delivery and pickup from hospitals to funeral homes.
WORDS OF WARNING
As someone who sees the potential consequences from the virus every day, Wood had a message for the community. "I don't think I would want to live with the fact that I may have carried it to someone else and it killed them, or it caused them to have a serious illness. I don't want to be that selfish," said Wood.
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Dr. Kelly said El Paso County did not end up needing the refrigerated storage unit. They had it ready to order but the funeral homes were able to acquire additional storage, which has solved the problem. "Hopefully the worst has passed," Dr. Kelly writes in an email to News5 on December 18. "It seemed to have let up a little this week."