York County coroner: COVID-19 death surge overwhelming morgue

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
York County Coroner Pam Gay talks about a planned morgue in a former ICE detention dormitory at the relocated coroner's office at the York County Prison Complex Wednesday, July 15, 2020. The morgue is slated for completion in mid-2121. Bill Kalina photo

A surge in COVID-19 deaths in York County following Thanksgiving is overwhelming the morgue shared by county Coroner Pam Gay and WellSpan York Hospital. 

Over the past two weeks, the morgue has "frequently" reached its capacity of eight or nine bodies. At times, there has been an overflow due to a lack of space for incoming decedents.

"That usually involves going into a room that’s next to the morgue and turning down the temperature," Gay said. "This is why we so much need our own space."

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As of Monday, York County had seen 83 deaths in the previous 14 days. That's nearly as many as in October and November combined, which had a total of 85 deaths.

Single-day death totals repeatedly smashed records in December. This past week, 11 new coronavirus-related deaths were reported Wednesday, which topped the previous record of 10, set earlier in the month.

The increase in deaths comes as the morgue continues to also see a surge in drug-overdose deaths, which largely have been driven by fentanyl, officials have said.

With 185 confirmed drug deaths so far this year, the coroner's office has handled nearly 20 deaths per month, nearly doubling the numbers seen in 2019.

"You combine all of that with the increase in COVID deaths, (the morgue) can get quite crowded,” Gay said.

In response, Gay said, at times bodies are delivered directly to funeral homes to keep occupancy as low as possible. Families also are being urged to be patient as funeral homes are being contacted.

A separate morgue for the coroner's office is expected to be completed next spring. The new space will be able to hold more than 30 bodies, tripling the agency's capacity, Gay said.

In recent days, the number of deaths linked to COVID-19 has declined. There were no deaths reported over the weekend in York County. But it is unclear if that trend will continue.

After Thanksgiving, both cases and deaths surged throughout the state.

Now, top health officials at all levels of government are warning that the post-Christmas season could bring about another surge in cases and, ultimately, another wave of deaths.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.