BOISE — Stephanie Garcia was scared to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
But after the Post Falls funeral director lost her father to COVID-19, and a stream of new victims began pouring into the building, she became even more scared of the disease. In one weekend, Bell Tower Funeral Homes, where she works, received six bodies. Five had died of COVID-19.
She got her first shot soon after.
“That was a real eye-opening moment for me,” Garcia said. “That drove it home.”
The number of Idahoans dying of COVID-19 is on the rise as the state goes through its worst surge of the pandemic in terms of severe disease. Hospitals, funeral homes and coroners now find themselves tasked with figuring out how to manage the bodies filling their morgues to capacity.
More than 2,600 Idahoans have died in connection with COVID-19 so far — including a record 25 on Sept. 11. The state also continues to break records for its number of COVID-19 hospitalizations, intensive care unit patients and patients on ventilators. Ada, Canyon and Kootenai counties have seen some of the highest death totals.
As a result, morticians are forced to find new ways to store bodies in — and sometimes outside — their facilities. At Bell Tower, owner Lance Cox said they’ve converted a train car into an external refrigeration unit. The train car, which smells of diesel fuel and produces a large noise constantly, can hold up to 56 bodies.
But as Cox says, “It’s better than nothing,” because without it they’d have no more room.
‘History is repeating itself’: Coroners brace for more COVID-19 patients
The sheer demand has created a logistical nightmare for county coroners in the Treasure Valley. Ada County Coroner Dotti Owens said multiple funeral homes are no longer taking bodies from her office. She’s relying on a mobile refrigeration unit, which can hold up to 70 bodies, to store COVID-19 victims.
In one weekend, her office took in 24 bodies, even though her internal morgue only has space for 20. Like those in the funeral industry, the office has had little relief the past month.
“We’re bursting at the seams,” Owens said.
Ada County Chief Deputy Coroner Brett Harding said that in his 34-year career, he could only compare the number of deaths to two major events, from when he lived in Florida: the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando and a 1996 ValuJet plane crash in the Everglades that killed more than 100 people. Besides those two events, “it’s the worst I’ve ever seen,” he said.
Hospitals typically hold those who die in their facilities in their morgue until family can be contacted to make funeral arrangements. If a person dies in an accident, or the coroner is called to the scene for an autopsy, the coroner’s office stores the body in their refrigeration units until the investigation is complete. The body is then transferred to a funeral home.
For those who die without family, Canyon County Deputy Coroner Steve Rhodes said, funeral homes take turns picking up the body from the coroner’s office.
Lack of space is nothing new for Ada County. The building has long struggled with too few spots; Owens said they were having to stack bodies, two bodies to one shelf, until they got the trailer in November. Stacking bodies is not recommended, as it can lead to bodies becoming disfigured if placed in the wrong position, Owens said.
However, if spaces continue to fill, they may have to start stacking again. The coroner’s office is still months away from a new facility opening in Meridian, and deaths haven’t slowed. Harding said the county still has plenty of space, but he’s worried that could change in a moment’s notice.
In Canyon County, the coroner’s office only has seven spaces for bodies. As of Monday, three of those spaces were full, Coroner Jennifer Crawford said, but she expects the rest to fill up. Crawford said she’s talked to multiple funeral homes who have reached their capacity.
Crawford’s office last year purchased a mobile refrigeration trailer that can store 20 bodies when COVID-19 deaths were first overwhelming hospitals and funeral homes. The office isn’t currently using the trailer, she said.
But at Dakan Funeral Chapel in Caldwell, Director Alan Kerrick said the cooling facility is currently operating at capacity. Last year, Kerrick doubled the funeral home’s capacity, and he fears he may have to add even more space.
“We have been through this,” Kerrick said. “History is repeating itself from last year. I think it is going to be more of an issue this year as we move into the fall and winter.”
Tammie Fleshman, manager of Boise’s Bella Vida Funeral Home, said she’s gotten multiple calls from family members looking for available space. They couldn’t find any at other Boise mortuaries.
“That was upsetting … to think that a family member has to call around to find room,” Fleshman said.
‘There’s so much regret’: Families struggle with preventable deaths
It’s not just the Boise area. At Bell Tower in Post Falls, about a third of all intakes are people who died due to COVID-19. Even with extra space added, Cox said they are about 60% full. On top of that, they’ve been taking bodies from other funeral homes in Kootenai County, and sometimes as far as Spokane, Washington.
Some funeral homes are choosing to embalm bodies they wouldn’t normally embalm. The intensive process preserves bodies for burial, typically for those kept in an open casket — but Cox said some are embalming bodies to be cremated, just to relieve space in crowded refrigeration units. Embalmed bodies don’t need to be refrigerated.
Garcia said the additional work has strained Bell Tower’s staff and made it more difficult to have families gather for a funeral. Many families of COVID-19 victims are having to quarantine after testing positive for the disease themselves.
“It’s becoming increasingly a problem for families to be able to even come in here,” Garcia said. “We’re starting to see families kind of take a step back on services, because they’re afraid of the larger crowds and spreading this virus.”
Garcia said families sometimes express regret about the COVID-19 vaccine and how they wish their loved one had been vaccinated before they died.
Idaho has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the U.S. Nearly all of the hospitalized COVID-19 patients, many of them now younger than 60 without health conditions, are unvaccinated. Those who are vaccinated and hospitalized are typically immunocompromised, health care workers have said.
“It’s typically such a sore subject, because there’s so much regret,” Garcia said.
Harding said he’s upset by the politicization of the pandemic, which has convinced many to not get vaccinated and led to more bodies filling the county’s cooler.
“People want to believe what they’re told,” he said. “If you’re telling them that masks don’t work and vaccines don’t work, then they’re going to trust those people, especially people in authority.”
‘We’re frustrated’: COVID-19 leaves emotional toll on funeral workers
Those in the funeral industry say it’s an emotional business, with or without a pandemic. But the recent onslaught of new deaths has left many in the industry emotionally frayed. Owens said seeing so many preventable deaths has taken its toll.
“People assume that because we deal with death every day, that it’s something that we’re just immune to,” she said. “We’re frustrated and we’re tired and we’re behind on everything.”
Harding said the most difficult deaths for him are older couples, people who have been married for decades only to be separated by a cruel and sweeping pandemic.
It could get even worse. State health officials have warned of a potentially larger surge in October. If that were to happen, Owens said the entire system could be pushed beyond its limits.
“I don’t know if we can handle it,” she said. “We are barely hanging on.”