TAMPA — Drivers who pass by the Hillsborough Medical Examiner’s Office recently might have noticed a new — and potentially ominous — addition.
Six white refrigerated containers were delivered to the facility at 11025 N 46th St. late last month and now sit in a grassy area on the north side of the building. As coronavirus cases continue to rise in Florida, the timing raises questions: Are they expecting an influx of COVID-19 casualties, or maybe already seeing one?
In fact, the Hillsborough office decided to purchase the containers back in March as a contingency plan for hurricane season, said manager of operations Harrison Cowan.
The office wants to be ready if a big storm blows through the area and causes a sizable death count beyond the building’s 200-body capacity, he said. When the county got the chance back in March to buy the containers at a reduced price, Cowan decided to go for it.
“I’d rather do it up front than during a hurricane and having issues trying to get them there,” he said. “So when the possibility came up, I thought we might as well jump on these.”
Each of the 20-foot-long Conex containers has room for 20 bodies. They’re easier to access than wheeled trailers and more stable, especially if a big storm hits, Cowan said. The county purchased the containers in for $8,500 each; they were first delivered to the county’s public safety complex on East Columbus Drive, then moved to the Medical Examiner’s Office around June 19.
Passersby could be forgiven for wondering if the containers are COVID-19 related. Their minds might cast back to news reports showing bodies being loaded into refrigerated trailers parked at hospitals in New York City and other hard-hit areas for temporary morgue space. The coronavirus pandemic brought a surge in business to the refrigerated truck and storage industries as medical examiners and funeral homes sought additional storage in anticipation of overwhelmed facilities, according to news reports.
Now Florida is setting new records for positive cases and the weekly death average is up to nearly 60 a day, the highest since early May.
But Cowan said none of the 30 bodies at the Hillsborough office on Friday were COVID 19 patients, even though the state Medical Examiner’s Commission requires local examiners to issue the cause and manner of death in COVID-19 cases. That’s because the office typically handles COVID-19 cases by phone after reviewing patient medical records, then the bodies are transported directly from the hospital to a funeral home or crematorium.
“Coronavirus patients aren’t coming to us, so I knew that wouldn’t be an issue,” he said.
Cowan said the office would try to work something out if hospitals run out of morgue space and seek help.
“They could call us and we would talk to them and see what we can do,” he said.
Hospitals could face that predicament if the situation here worsens, said Dr. Jay Wolfson, a professor at the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health.
“We have considerable capacity to manage the dead now,” Wolfson said. “We’re not as congested as Miami or Fort Lauderdale, but it doesn’t take much.”
According to numbers the state released Friday morning, Hillsborough had 17,662 COVID-19 cases — the fourth-highest amount of infections of any Florida county — and 189 deaths. Only about 10 percent of intensive care unit beds in the Tampa Bay area were available.
Wolfson said experts still expect a second wave of the pandemic in the fall, which happens to coincide with the height of the North Atlantic hurricane season.
“If that happens and we have not done the things necessary to push the curves down, then more of those ICU patients are going to be subject to dying,” he said.
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2020 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide
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