Coronavirus deaths: Cook County Medical Examiner prepares refrigerated warehouse for possible surge

CHICAGO (WLS) -- As Illinois nears its peak for coronavirus cases, the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office is preparing for a possible surge in deaths, and getting ready to hand a potential "worst-case scenario."

Steel racking systems to hold COVID-19 bodies are being put together in what the medical examiner's office called a "surge center," a 66,000 square foot refrigerated warehouse to handle the increase of deaths.

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

The surge center is five miles away from the Medical Examiner's Office, which is currently over capacity. Hospital morgues are full, too. They have been putting pressure on funeral homes to pick up remains as soon as possible.

"It's hard for us to do that, because we don't know how long we'll be storing remains," said Spencer Leak, Jr. of Leak & Sons Funeral Home.

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The warehouse is expected to offer relief to the hospitals and, in turn, to the funeral homes that are not designed as storage facilities. Because many COVID-19 families are quarantined, they cannot pick up their loved ones' remains right away.

"We do hold cases up to 30 days, but with the increase in the number of deaths we may have to revisit the number of days we can hold a deceased person," Dr. Arunkumar said.

Even if bodies are held over 30 days, the county's chief medical examiner is confident the new warehouse can hold enough, even with a spike in deaths.

The county has also acquired 14 more refrigerated trailers and is in the process of securing six more. They will positioned as hospitals that are experiencing surges at their morgues.
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