Houston-area funeral homes, medical examiner’s offices forced to change policies as COVID-19 deaths rise

Houston-area funeral homes and morgues forced to change protocols as virus deaths increase
Houston-area funeral homes and morgues forced to change protocols as virus deaths increase

HOUSTON – Houston-area funeral homes and county medical examiner’s offices are being forced to change policies and procedures as coronavirus-related deaths increase in the state.

The Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office told KPRC 2 that they are also dealing with issues involving heat as well, among other accommodations they’ve had to make including wearing PPE to scenes.

“We had to modify the number of people going down to the morgue and the number of people in the autopsy suite at any one time so that we could reduce the amount of PPE we were using,” said Dr. Pramad Gumpeni, assistant deputy chief medical examiner. “We also instituted social distancing in the office. We removed group meetings—everything shifted immediately to online—and we’ve reduced interactions, we wear face masks, and we also have implemented temperature checks.”

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The Galveston County Medical Examiner’s Office said they made changes as well.

“Our office has adapted and changed our existing protocols to conform to UTMB COVID protocol. We restrict when and who may enter the office. Masks are worn at all times by everyone in the building, including employees,” said DJ Florence, the Chief Investigator for the office.

Funeral Homes

Local funeral homes have also had to make adjustments dealing with the pandemic. La Paz Memorial Funeral Home in north Houston has seen more than 30 coronavirus-related funeral cases since the virus began spreading in the Houston-area in March.

“In this field, we call it a calling,” said Jay Bernard, La Paz Memorial Funeral Home General Manager.

The industry calls this “death care,” and it is a complex, multi-agency service. At La Paz Memorial Funeral Home, Bernard’s team is focused on serving with the utmost humanity and compassion — on top of safety.

“One thing they must keep in mind is that we have one of the hardest jobs. Whether you’re in embalmment, funeral or maintenance, you’re dealing and seeing a lot of things,” Bernard said.

This includes preparing the deceased. Bernard said embayments now taking double or triple the usual timeframe.

“Once they are embalmed, of course, they are safe. Now the precautionary [concerns] are the fluids of the deceased and things of that nature,” Bernard said. “Those are things that have you on edge. That’s why we suit up with shoe covers, bodysuits. Everything is covered, except for the ears.”

Viewing services are also spaced out and at 50% capacity and guest flow is planned out ahead of visitations.

“Once you sanitize, we ask you to wipe and throw it out. After that we have a thermometer gun,” Bernard said.

However, this preparation depends on teamwork with hospital staff and medical examiners.

“Those are the people who are making it possible for us to stay safe,” Bernard said.

Bernard said all these efforts are worth it to bring families closure during this unprecedented time.

“It’s rewarding because when you hear stories,”Bernard said. “Some families haven’t been able to see their loved one for three months, so when situations like this to occur, for them to actually see their family members, it’s always overwhelming.”