Cook County Medical Examiner Prepares for a Surge in COVID-19 Deaths

About 70% of Illinois’ COVID-19 deaths are in Cook County, which means the county morgue is working overtime.

The Cook County Medical Examiner's office has dealt with 1,628 deaths between March 19 and April 19 this year, compared with 510 deaths during the same time frame in 2019, according to a spokesperson for the office.

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Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Ponni Arunkumar says her staff is working in 12- to 16-hour shifts to deal with the 70 to 80 cases a day.

As of Tuesday, there had been a total of 23,181 confirmed coronavirus cases and 1,002 deaths in Cook County. This includes 9,627 cases and 433 deaths in suburban Cook County, and 13,554 cases and 569 deaths in Chicago.

As a result of that surge in deaths related to the pandemic, the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office opened an off-site morgue dubbed the “surge center.” The 66,000-square-foot refrigerated warehouse has the capacity to hold more than 2,000 bodies. Arunkumar says 25 National Guardsmen are helping out with the added caseload.

As of Wednesday, there were 100 people in that temporary morgue. About two-thirds of the bodies there are COVID-19 positive.

“We know we are going to use some of that space. We hope not to use all of that space, but we’re ready to be able to handle any increase in the case load that this pandemic can bring,” Arunkumar said Wednesday on “Chicago Tonight.”

The medical examiner’s office has also deployed 12 refrigerated trailers to area hospitals to help ease overcrowding at hospital morgues. The Cook County Department of Emergency Management and Regional Security has 20 trailers available for use.

Should the medical examiner’s office need to investigate a person’s cause of death, there are a number of steps to determine if the person was COVID-19 positive.

“We will do the nasal swabs that are needed to look for the virus. We can take X-rays or CT scans if needed to look for an infectious process in the lungs and then determine the cause of death,” said Arunkumar. “There are some instances where an autopsy, meaning an internal examination, is needed and in those cases the examination will be done in an infectious disease autopsy room and use procedures that cause minimal aerosol formation,” she said.

Staff members who are conducting autopsies can contract the virus due to droplets in the air, but the medical examiner’s office says it currently has enough personal protective equipment (PPE).

“When an autopsy is being conducted there are procedures that are taken that involve aerosol formation,” said Arunkumar. “When we have to do an autopsy there is a possibility of aerosol exposure and hence contracting the disease. Currently we have enough protective gear to handle our case load. It is difficult to get personal protective equipment. But for now we have adequate PPE.”

Note: In an earlier version of this story, the number of deaths in Cook County in 2020 and 2019 were incorrect. The story has been updated.

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