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Honolulu medical examiner's office using refrigerated containers for COVID-19 deaths

Honolulu Fire Department

Hawaiʻi’s death count due to COVID-19 stands at 811, as of Tuesday. Close to 200 of those occurred in September.

That number could have taxed Honolulu’s morgue had it not been for the acquisition of three refrigerated containers for the medical examiner's office, which originally had a capacity of 60.

With the recent high number of fatalities, the medical examiner is using two of those three containers. The Conversation talked to Charlotte Carter, a lead medical and legal investigator with the medical examiner’s office about the capacity issue.

Carter said she's grateful they were able to work with the Honolulu Fire Department to acquire the needed equipment just before the surge in cases hit.  

"We would not want to overcrowd our morgue. We have historically used an off-site secondary storage facility. It is commercial — you know most of the funeral homes and the hospitals use that facility as well — and we just also wanted to be able to make sure we could clear out any cases that we had in that facility to make space for the hospitals," Carter said.

Though two of the containers are in use, Carter said there are quite a few open spaces in the internal morgue.

"Inside the morgue, currently, we have about 27 — was the last count that I had, which is really good. If we had had that and nobody in the trailers I'd be really, really pleased with that type of space," she told Hawaiʻi Public Radio. "These trailers are nothing new to, sort of, the death care industry or the mass fatality care environment. Everybody who's in those is aware that these exist, that these become necessary at certain points."

Carter also said she was thankful they had them and didn't have to wait for them to be shipped because Hawaiʻi is in such a remote location.

"It could have taken a very long time if we had to rely on the federal government or other resources to be able to obtain something like that very, very quickly," she added.

The medical examiner's office is also in the middle of a $5 million renovation to double its capacity, but construction is going to be another year and a half.

This interview aired on The Conversation on Oct. 5, 2021.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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