As Cook County grapples with climbing death count, pop-up morgue troubles neighbors

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Some residents of West Elsdon on Chicago's Southwest Side say they are angry and frightened because the Cook County Medical Examiner has begun keeping bodies of COVID-19 victims in a cold-storage facility in their neighborhood.

"What I can say is that I don't feel safe, that this is happening in my backyard, like literally across the street," said Rodrigo Martinez.

Martinez lives across from a 67,000 square foot refrigerated warehouse that was most recently used by a large meat distributor. Last week, crews hired by the medical examiner began erecting shelving structures inside the facility. They also outfitted the coolers with equipment to help relieve an overflow of bodies, mostly transferred from hospital morgues, since the coronavirus outbreak began with a fury in Illinois.

Monday afternoon the medical examiner sought to calm fears there was any risk to people living nearby.

RELATED: Coronavirus Chicago: refrigerated warehouse re-purposed to store dead bodies from COVID-19 in Cook County

"The surge center poses absolutely no danger to residents and is a temporary facility to help us manage our caseload during this pandemic," said Cook County spokesperson Natalia Derevyanny.

While the thought of such a facility existing in a neighborhood may be unnerving, Derevyanny insists the live virus cannot be passed from remains being stored inside to those on the outside.

No autopsies or any other examinations are being conducted at the warehouse she said, and it is strictly being used for storage.

The West Elsdon warehouse is about seven miles from the actual Cook County Morgue, where more remains are arriving than can be stored. On Monday afternoon there were 21 bodies being held in the Southwest Side pop-up morgue according to officials with the Medical Examiner's office. Some of them are COVID-19 victims.

Nearby residents told the I-Team they were not informed of the plan to use the warehouse for body storage but are concerned about the possible danger to their families.

"The proximity, obviously, makes it that, especially on this very block," said Martinez. He lives about 20 feet from the building. "I mean we understand how it's transmitted and everything, but I don't understand how much of a risk factor we're actually stepping up, considering that this is happening now."
Neighbors said they have observed trucks arriving to the facility at 4 a.m.

"They're clearly doing it to keep us uninformed of what's happening. I understand that maybe they don't want to sensationalize the whole situation we have a right to know," Martinez said.

The warehouse is in the 23rd Ward. Monday afternoon Alderman Silvana Tabares told the I-Team she visited the "surge center" and Cook County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Ponni Arunkumar.

"Residents should know the center poses no health risks," Ald. Tabares said. The city council member urged, "Out of respect for the deceased, their loved ones and those on the front lines battling to keep us healthy, to please continue to practice social distancing," Tabares said.

Last week, Chief Medical Examiner Arunkumar told ABC7 the facility should be able to accommodate the full overflow from the morgue.

"We think it is enough, we can hold about 2,000 cases and ramp up if needed," said Arunkumar. "There is enough space there. We are hoping we don't have to go beyond that."

FULL STATEMENT FROM ALD SILVANA TABARES

After visiting the surge center and seeing Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Arunkumar, her team, and the National Guard in action, residents should know the center poses no health risks and out of respect for the deceased, their loved ones and those on the front lines battling to keep us healthy, to please continue to practice social distancing.

FULL STATEMENT FROM NATALIA DREVYANNY

The Cook County Medical Examiner's Office realized several weeks ago that the space in our main facility may not be sufficient to handle the increase in cases due to COVID-19. We had to quickly find a facility the met our needs in order to ensure that all decedents under our care are treated with dignity and respect. This warehouse was chosen as our surge center because it was best suited to handle any caseload we may have.

We signed the lease last week, and also informed elected officials that represent this community. The surge center poses absolutely no danger to residents and is a temporary facility to help us manage our caseload during this pandemic.
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