By Mary Hennigan
Washington County had the third-highest total COVID-19 deaths in Arkansas, with a total of 195 as of Dec. 13, according to the Arkansas Department of Health. With these numbers rapidly increasing, the Washington County coroner’s office received a morgue trailer from the Arkansas Crime Lab.
The morgue trailer can handle 17 bodies and will be dedicated to COVID-19 deaths. It can be transported to the surrounding counties if needed, Washington County Coroner Roger Morris said.
The Washington County morgue can fit 16 bodies in its two coolers, which are separated between COVID-19 deaths and natural deaths in an attempt to stop contamination of the bodies that are going to funeral homes, Morris said.
With the surge in the virus statewide, Morris said, “We ran real close twice.” He added, “If we’d have had one more call we’d have been at capacity.”
The morgue trailer in Washington County is the only one owned by the State Crime Lab, and is on a temporary transfer, Director Kermit Channell said.
“These units are not actually portable morgues. They’re really body storage units…as opposed to a mobile morgue where you’re actually going to conduct autopsies,” he said.
Morris said he the extra capacity from a morgue trailer for Northwest Arkansas was necessary in the case of an emergency.
“The way we’ve been staying at capacity, I felt like it was the right thing to do, to have a trailer in place in case we needed it,” he said. “Our people deserve to at least have a morgue unit,” he said.
Pulaski County had the highest total number of COVID-19 deaths, with 318 as of Dec. 13, according to the Arkansas Department of Health. The county had its three highest daily death totals this month.
The Pulaski County morgue has two coolers that can each store 12 bodies and one freezer with a capacity of nine, Senior Deputy Coroner Josh Hollis said.
Pulaski County also has access to its own morgue trailer that can fit about 20 bodies.
Although Pulaski County is seeing daily increases in deaths, most are occurring in hospitals, Hollis said, and the morgue has only managed two COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic began.
Benton County had the state’s second-highest total of COVID-19 deaths, with 209 as of Dec. 13, according to the Arkansas Department of Health.
The Benton County morgue also has two coolers that hold about 16 bodies, but with the county’s hospital and funeral home morgues, the county can store 75 to 100 bodies, Benton County Coroner Daniel Oxford said.
Having access to the new morgue trailer wouldn’t change anything for Benton County because of the amount of resources already available, Oxford said.
“I’ve been doing this since ‘95 and we’ve never completely filled our capacities,” he said. “If we need a morgue trailer in Benton County, it’s a bad day for someone.”
Mary Hennigan is an ArkansasCovid intern and a senior journalism student at the University of Arkansas. She is studying for a news/editorial focused degree with an anthropology minor. @maryhennigan_