ST. LOUIS COUNTY — On one side of a 3-foot by 4-foot window, a furnished visiting room for a handful of bereaved to gather and pay respects.
On the other side, a chamber for placement of the departed on a gurney, sealed in a black bag, draped by a pall. It’s just a 15-minute visit, but it will have to do until quarantines are lifted and it’s safe to plan a funeral.
Out the back door from that chamber, a refrigerated warehouse with space for a worst-case scenario of 1,300 bodies. They would be tagged with bar codes and stored side-by-side on metal shelves in a warehouse chilled to between 34 and 38 degrees.
Welcome to the “Dignified Transfer Center,” also known as a “surge morgue.” It’s the St. Louis area’s temporary plan for storing dead bodies if their numbers overwhelm hospitals, morgues and funeral homes. The limited space in those facilities is already running out, as many families are postponing funerals until friends and loved ones can safely travel and come together for a final goodbye.
The purpose of the center, organizers said Friday, is to ensure that the dead are treated with dignity, and their bodies preserved, with attention to religious, cultural and family traditions. And also that people are kept safe.
The $2 million facility will open Tuesday. It was built in less than two weeks inside a 29,000-square-foot warehouse in Earth City. The cost was shared by Jefferson, Franklin, St. Charles and St. Louis counties. It was not yet known whether the cost would be reimbursed by the federal relief aid awarded to states.
“What we’re trying to do is make sure that they have a sense of closure,” Rabbi Mark L. Shook said as officials gave St. Louis-area journalists a tour of the facility on Friday. There are 37 chaplains from nine religious denominations ready to preside over services, he said. The facility is not exclusively for COVID-19 victims, and will be able to hold any body that must be held pending a funeral.
Visitors wore face masks and hard hats as they were led through the facility while dozens of contractors solemnly completed their work painting and fabricating what will become rows of sturdy shelves for holding bodies. Sgt. Benjamin Granda, a St. Louis County police spokesman, said it would be the only time unauthorized people would ever gain access.
The project happened quickly. A Post-Dispatch story earlier this week noted that the project was nearly finished before it had been announced.
As journalists entered the facility, Deanna Venker, the county’s transportation and public works director, remarked that she had been placed in charge of it two weeks ago. The first few days were focused on finding the site, securing it and hiring engineers. “And what you see here today has been put together in one week. One week.”
People who work at the facility, and especially those in contact with the bodies, will be dressed in the appropriate level of personal protective equipment. Access to the facility will be restricted to authorized personnel and to families of the dead who have made appointments.
“When somebody dies in a hospital, the normal process is that you go to a funeral home, then you’re buried or cremated,” said Dr. Mary Case, the medical examiner for the four counties involved in the project.
“When we have a large number of deaths occurring in a particular area, which we’ve never had before like this ... if it exceeded the number that we could deal with in the funeral industry, then the bodies would come here.”
About 30 people die per day on average in St. Louis County. No one knows yet how many will die from complications of COVID-19. A regional pandemic task force projects that 71,000 people in the metropolitan area have been or will be infected with the virus, with the peak of hospitalizations expected around April 25.
Case said it’s possible that no bodies will be taken to the center, “but it has to be planned for … this is an unbelievable thing that they put together here.”
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