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How funeral homes, coroner have adjusted with increased COVID-19 cases
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The outside of a cooler is shown Jan. 14, 2021, at a Gainesville crematory. Local health officials and funeral authorities have seen an increase in COVID-related deaths in recent weeks.

Though under control right now, Hall County Coroner Marion Merck said he has been working on plans in recent weeks to expand the county’s ability to store the dead amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Families are making fast decisions on the type of services they want,” Merck said. “We’re not having to delay anything on that, so we’re staying up with it pretty well now. I’m very much concerned about the future, that’s no doubt.”

There were 678 total deaths across Northeast Georgia Health System’s facilities as of Friday, Jan. 15, 70 more since Jan. 8.

Dr. Deepak Aggarwal, the NGHS chief of medical staff, said in an email last week more than 150 COVID-related deaths -- or roughly 25% -- of all the COVID-related deaths seen during the pandemic have come in the past 30 days.

There have been 112 COVID-related deaths in the first 14 days of 2021, according to NGHS officials.

NGHS has had at least 300 confirmed COVID-19 positive patients across its facilities since Jan. 5, with 325 patients recorded Friday, Jan. 15. There were six days toward the end of 2020 that crested above 300.

Merck said the county’s funeral homes collectively have the cold storage capacity for 10-11 bodies. 

Gainesville’s Northeast Georgia Medical Center has a total maximum capacity of 20 bodies between its new and old morgues. The Braselton hospital can also hold at most eight bodies.

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The inside of a cooler is shown Jan. 14, 2021 at a Gainesville funeral home. Hall County funeral homes have seen fewer people coming in for services amid a spike in COVID-19 cases. - photo by Nick Watson

Matched with the hospital’s capacity, Merck said they have “managed to stay up with it right now.”

Ben Mason, managing partner for Little & Davenport Funeral Home, said the number of services have decreased slightly over the last 30-45 days. He attributed the dip to people being concerned about gathering amid the spiking coronavirus cases.

“We have some that don’t even want to come in,” said Hillside Chapel Funeral Home general manager Cindy Butler. “They want to do just the cremation by phone. People are scared to get out, some of them, I guess.”

Butler said they have also seen an increase in the COVID-related deaths in the past few weeks.

Merck said he has contacted the White County coroner, who has more cooler space, about getting permission to use it if need be.

For years, Merck has campaigned and pushed for a county morgue. He said Wednesday, Jan. 13, he has had recent conversations about moving forward with the project.

Merck said he would like to have the morgue that would be in a convenient location for the area’s funeral homes. A morgue is an “assurance that if we were to have some disaster here,” the county could manage the strain.

The Department of Public Health has a mobile morgue trailer with a maximum capacity of 16 bodies, and NGHS has requested the trailer if the need arises. Hospital officials said the trailer is being stored on Allen Creek Road in Gainesville.

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