Many Arkansas county coroners are overwhelmed with more than double the workload compared to 2019 because of increasing COVID-19 deaths.
By Abby Zimmardi
The Sebastian County Coroner’s office has only one full-time worker, Kenny Hobbs, and he is inundated with the new waves of COVID-19 deaths in Sebastian County, the fifth highest Arkansas county by deaths.
“With the new onslaught I got this weekend, probably going to be looking at 65 Covid-related deaths, somewhere in that area,” Hobbs, Sebastian County Coroner said on Sept. 28. Sebastian County has 160 more deaths than in October of 2019, Hobbs said.
As of Oct. 8, the top five Arkansas counties by COVID-19 deaths are Pulaski County with 169 deaths, Washington County with 122, Benton County with 98, Jefferson County with 87 and Sebastian County with 67. The statewide total was 1,503 COVID-19 deaths.
Most COVID-19 deaths in Sebastian County are from nursing homes and from people 70 years and older, Hobbs said. The youngest death in Sebastian County was a person in their 40s.
“After they would die, I would talk to the family and the family would tell me they’re afraid to go to the doctor or hospital because of Covid,” Hobbs said.
Coroners in other counties with high COVID-19 death rates don’t feel the same burden. Benton County Coroner Daniel Oxford said the workload has remained the same even with increasing COVID-19 deaths.
“We average 140-150 deaths per month anyway, so this has increased our work load a little, but not really all that much,” Oxford said. “We’re about average of what we were in previous years.”
The cases that Hobbs has seen in Sebastian County range from the death taking place between two days to a month after being diagnosed with COVID-19, he said.
Ronny Ocker, director of the Ocker-Putman Funeral Home in Fort Smith, said fewer people come to services because of fear of being exposed to the virus. Funeral services are open to 67% of capacity, which is between 65 to 70 people, and there is also the option to livestream a service on the Ocker-Putman Facebook page.
For funerals of people who died from Covid-19, there are more restrictions on the services, Ocker said.
“We do not let people touch or kiss or pat anybody that had any kind of Covid consequences,” Ocker said. “So, we keep them back and they can still do viewings and funerals and things like that, but it’s restricted to how many people and how far apart.”
Washington County has the second highest number of COVID-19 deaths, and Janell Smith, office manager and deputy coroner for Washington County Coroner’s Office, said that cases have been coming into the office daily.
“It has definitely increased the workload at the Coroner’s Office,” Smith said. “We on average in the last month have had one case at least every day, if not two.”
Unsure about the contagious nature of people who died of COVID-19, the Washington County Coroner’s Office holds and isolates the bodies, which is typically for no longer than 24 hours, Smith said.
“We have chosen to bring all of the Covid deaths to the Coroner’s Office to isolate them,” Smith said. “So, they are not released to the funeral home until we know what their final disposition is going to be, which means that they’re either going to be directly cremated, or they’re going to be directly embalmed.”
Funeral homes in Washington County do not have the capability of isolating COVID-19 deaths, Smith said. The coroner’s office has the capacity to hold 11 bodies and has not had a problem with running out of space.
As well as isolating the bodies, the Washington County Coroner’s office is using double the amount of materials to bag the bodies as an extra precaution, Smith said.
“We put them in a white cremation bag, or the facilities do, and then we put them in a regular body bag,” Smith said. “So that’s a double seal and we sanitize in between.”
Once the body is sealed in the bags, they are not opened even if they are going to be cremated, Smith said.
Oxford is not sure what to expect in the coming weeks for the Benton County Coroner’s Office for COVID-19 deaths.
“You can’t predict exactly when somebody is going to die or what the future holds,” Oxford said. “That’s just not a crystal ball that I’ve got.”