L.A. County tops 10,000 COVID-19 deaths amid ‘backup of dead bodies’ straining mortuaries, hospitals

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Los Angeles County topped 10,000 COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday as health officials discussed a new grim reality in the pandemic: a “backup of dead bodies” straining local mortuaries and hospitals.

“Most heartbreaking is that if we had done a better job reducing transmission of the virus, many of these deaths would not have happened,” L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in a media briefing.

The county confirmed another 274 COVID-19 deaths Wednesday, bringing the total to 10,056.

With a new, unprecedented coronavirus surge sending a flood of patients into hospitals, there has also been a “large volume” of dead bodies that many mortuaries across the county don’t have space for.

“This is causing a backup of dead bodies at a variety of facilities and hospitals across the county,” Health Services Director Dr. Christina Ghaly said.

The L.A. County Medical Examiner-Coroner is helping private hospitals store the bodies.

Members of the National Guard will be deployed next week to the coroner’s office to help with operations, L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis said.

The county morgue, operated by the Department of Health Services, had 386 open spaces Tuesday. Ghaly said that was “more than enough” to meet the needs of the DHS hospitals.

The deaths follow a tenfold increase in daily coronavirus infections in just two months, “a number that’s frankly staggering,” Ferrer said, adding that it’s only going to get worse.

“Unfortunately, given the amount of travel and holiday intermingling that may be happening over this winter holiday, we all need to be prepared for another surge that will start with even higher case numbers in January,” Ferrer said. “Increasing cases always translates to more and more people being rushed to already overcrowded hospitals and tragically, also results in more people continuing to die.”

But hospitals are already overwhelmed.

“We’re struggling to provide care, not just for those patients with COVID, but for those who have other injuries or accidents as well, and for other non-COVID-19 related medical emergencies like strokes and heart attacks.” Ghaly said

She said there have been “unfortunate outcomes” for patients who couldn’t be offloaded from ambulances into an emergency department in a timely manner. 

State and federal authorities are deploying disaster medical teams to help with staffing shortages in L.A. County, beginning with the first team arriving in the Antelope Valley Thursday, according to Ghaly.

Asked about whether the USNS Mercy is needed, Ghaly said the county would welcome any help.

The U.S. Navy hospital ship arrived in the Port of L.A. in late March to take in patients that don’t have COVID-19, and left seven weeks later — having treated just 77 patients.

“It was difficult to be able to identify patients that were suitable for transfer,” Ghaly said. “We are in a different situation today, and we would welcome resources from any way in which they can be provided.”

As hospitals feel the crush of the virus surge, Ghaly urged L.A. County residents to only go to emergency rooms if they’re having an emergency.

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