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$2 million ‘surge morgue’ in St. Louis County, little used during pandemic, has closed

$2 million ‘surge morgue’ in St. Louis County, little used during pandemic, has closed

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ST. LOUIS COUNTY — A temporary morgue, hastily built inside a warehouse in Earth City by St. Louis-area county governments to prevent the stockpiling of dead bodies in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, closed on Wednesday.

The “Dignified Transfer Center,” which opened April 21, was the St. Louis area’s temporary plan for storing bodies if their numbers were to overwhelm hospitals, morgues and funeral homes. Also called a “surge morgue,” its purpose was to ensure that the dead were treated with dignity, and their bodies preserved with attention to religious, cultural and family traditions. And also to give their loved ones a safe place to pay respects.

The $2 million facility was built inside a refrigerated warehouse with space for a worst-case scenario of 1,300 bodies. But it handled just 56 bodies in its first two months of operation — and just one more in the subsequent two months.

The morgue’s lack of use has drawn some criticism. In a tweet on Monday, County Councilman Tim Fitch, R-3rd District, called attention to the project’s relative expense per body.

But St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said in an interview in June that it would have been much worse if the morgue were full of dead people. And a news release from the county health department on Monday noted that in other regions, a lack of room for bodies “led to mass graves and the stockpiling of the bodies of deceased individuals.”

The cost was initially said to be shared between St. Louis, St. Charles, Jefferson and Franklin counties. Jefferson County Counselor Carl W. “Wes” Yates said in an email on Monday that “we believed that the costs were out of line, exorbitant and chose not to participate.” It was not immediately clear if Franklin County contributed.

The St. Louis County health department said on Monday the facility ran at a lower cost than had been projected. Christopher Ave, a health department spokesman, said initial estimates for running the morgue were $100,000 per month, but it has cost about $21,000 per month. He said some repairs were made to a leaky roof but those invoices had not been received yet.

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