Cook County Medical Examiner Acquires Warehouse to Serve as COVID-19 Surge Center

So far, 307 people have died in Illinois after testing positive for the coronavirus — numbers which stand to strain not only the health care system, but the system for dealing with the deceased.

Monday, the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office came into possession of a 40,000-square-foot refrigerated warehouse in the city, set to open later this week, to serve as a surge center for coronavirus victims.

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“Realistically, we will need at least some additional space. Our hope is that need is minimal,” spokeswoman Natalia Derevyanny said. “The reason we need this space is because we want to be sure that the deceased in Cook County are treated with dignity. It’s very important to our forensic pathologists — they see themselves as the final physicians these people will ever have, and they want to ensure that we do right by them.”

The office of county Medical Examiner Dr. Ponni Arunkumar had in recent weeks bought a pair of trailers outfitted with racks, where pathologists will perform swabs when necessary on deceased individuals confirmed to have, or suspected of having, the coronavirus. The examiners’ office is also requesting COVID-19 victims arrive double-bagged, with the exterior bag having been wiped with bleach or a medical-grade cleaner – precautions put in place to prevent someone from spreading the virus, even in death.

Already this year, the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office has dealt with approximately 2,100 cases; in a typical year the total figure is 6,000 to 6,500.

DuPage County hasn’t seen as many cases as Cook, but coroner Dr. Richard Jorgensen, who is keeping an eye on the uptick of cases and COVID 19-related deaths, said: “Quite honestly, that just made me uncomfortable thinking about how this could get out of hand.”

His office last week spent what Jorgensen said is about $36,000 to buy a refrigerated trailer outfitted with racks to serve as a mobile morgue.

Jorgensen says DuPage has a well-designed facility with space to store up to 50 bodies, if needed, with a rack system intended to handle a potential high-casualty disaster like a plane or train wreck or a mass shooting.

“We thought about that a lot,” he said. “We have a very rigorous disaster protocol and planning so we’re ready for that.”

The facility is nowhere near reaching capacity at this point, but he said he wants to be prepared, out of respect for the deceased.

“Everyone is stressed but not breaking,” Jorgensen said. “There’s a lot of stress, there’s a lot of need but not to the point where we’re breaking yet, and that’s why I went and, early on, obtained our mobile morgue.”

MED Alliance Group, out of Sycamore, Illinois, had produced mobile morgues for a handful of years, to be used in case of emergencies like tornadoes. 

Since the coronavirus crisis broke out, spokeswoman Christie Penzol said the company has been inundated with requests for them that it can’t fulfill, due to not being able to get the necessary products to make them. 

“We (originally) had no intention of this being something that we could supply to the whole country, to so many people that are in need,” Penzol said. 

State Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, is the Illinois legislature’s only licensed funeral director and embalmer, and previously served as the McLean County coroner.

In late March at Gov. J.B. Pritkzer’s request, Brady gathered an informal group of individuals from the coroner, funeral and hospital industries to discuss planning and to make recommendations.

Foremost among them, he said, was figuring out ways to prevent the pipeline from being overwhelmed by making sure that deceased individuals are moved out of hospitals as quickly as possible.

In some cases, he said, that may mean loosening requirements for paperwork and permitting a phone call from a relative to suffice when a hospital learns what a family wishes for their loved one’s remains.

“Fortunately for Illinois, our numbers of deaths related to the virus or immediate cause of the virus, is nowhere near someplace like New York or others and that’s obviously what we all want: deaths to be as minimal as possible in numbers. But just the surge alone, especially in the Chicagoland area, in the hospitals – doing  business the way they normally do in releasing remains has to be modified, has to be changed,” Brady said.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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