As deaths from COVID-19 continue to rise in Minnesota, the Walz administration is seeking approval to buy a building that would temporarily store the human remains of those who die in the widening pandemic.
The state needs such a facility because storage at funeral homes and hospitals is already full in some places and is expected to fall short over time, said Joe Kelly, director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, during a Friday call with reporters.
“What’s contemplated by the purchase is to buy a building where we can properly handle with dignity and respect and safety the bodies of Minnesotans who may fall victim to the coronavirus,” Kelly said.
The number of deaths is increasing with COVID-19, Kelly said. At the same time, health guidance for people to avoid large gatherings in order to prevent spread of COVID-19 has meant a slowdown in funerals and burials.
“I know this is a sensitive topic. It’s an uncomfortable topic for a lot of people,” Kelly said. “But we need to have a capability — we need to have a plan for a large number of deaths.”
State health officials on Friday announced an additional 26 deaths from COVID-19 while noting the statewide count for confirmed cases pushed above the 10,000 mark for the first time.
The statewide toll is 534 deaths, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. All but one of the newly reported deaths were long-term care residents, a group that accounts for roughly four out of five COVID-19 deaths thus far across the state.
The Walz administration wants approval to spend $6.9 million to purchase the facility. It would accommodate “a surge in demand for the timely, dignified, and temporary storage of human remains,” according to a written request to the commission overseeing the state’s COVID-19 Minnesota Fund.
The state wants to prevent situations like those in New York and Italy, Kelly said, where a high volume of deaths resulted in temporary interments or the use of shallow graves. He said funeral home directors, medical examiners, hospital officials and public health experts have advised the state on the need.
The administration has identified a warehouse it wants to purchase, Kelly said, and is negotiating with the owner agents. He did not identify the location.
The goal is to “properly, safely and with the appropriate dignity and respect that we think we owe our fellow Minnesotans” provide temporary storage, Kelly said, “until their families are ready to lay them to final rest.”
“What’s happened is, because there’s been a slowdown in the number of funerals and burials that are taking place … the storage in funeral homes and hospitals is, in some places, full and overflowing,” Kelly said.
On Sunday, the Star Tribune published 259 paid obituaries, which was a 24% increase over the first Sunday in May last year, said Steve Yaeger, the newspaper’s chief marketing officer. Darlyne Erickson, executive director of the Minnesota Funeral Directors Association, said she’s been noticing the volume of obituaries in newspapers, but she’s not yet clear on what overall death counts are like.
What is clear, Erickson said, is that many families are delaying services, because the state’s stay-at-home order says funerals are to include no more than 10 attendees.
Funeral directors are helping the state understand the existing supply of cold storage for bodies, Erickson said. The need for more capacity is likely to come in the future, she said, because state modeling suggests a peak in deaths in July.
“I don’t believe there’s a shortage right now,” she said.
COVID-19 is a viral respiratory illness caused by a new coronavirus that surfaced late last year. Most patients don’t need to be hospitalized, but the number of those hospitalized has increased to 473 people, including 198 patients in intensive care, the Minnesota Department of Health reported Friday.
Researchers are moving quickly to try to develop treatments for COVID-19, and one of the most promising is the drug remdesivir. One study has suggested patients taking the drug could see 20% shorter hospital stays as a result, said Jan Malcolm, the state health commissioner, during Friday’s conference call.
Gilead Sciences, the company that makes the drug, has made a significant donation of the medicine to the federal government, Malcolm said, and Minnesota is now getting information about the remdesivir being allocated to the state. It will be distributed “with an eye to maximize the number of lives that we can impact taking into account risk and expectation of benefit and also equity and fairness,” she said.
On Friday, Malcolm highlighted statistics showing that COVID-19 in Minnesota is having a disproportionate impact on racial and ethnic communities across the state.
Black residents account for 6.6% of the overall Minnesota population, Malcolm said, but nearly 17% of all COVID-19 cases and more than 19% of hospitalizations. Hispanic residents account for 5.5% of the state’s population, but 14% of cases and 9% of hospitalizations.
The disparities extend to the economic impact from COVID-19, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said. More than 1 in 4 people of color in the state’s labor force have applied for unemployment insurance, Flanagan said.
“This public health crisis is exposing and exacerbating the racial, economic and educational inequities that have been here all along,” she said during the conference call.
People age 65 and older, as well as those living in long-term care facilities and those with underlying medical conditions, are at greater risk from COVID-19. Those conditions range from lung disease, serious heart conditions and cancer to severe obesity, diabetes and kidney patients who need dialysis.
Minnesota’s confirmed case count stood at 10,088 on Friday, up more than 700 cases from the previous day. The increase along with the additional deaths show “we’re still in the thick of this fight,” Gov. Tim Walz said.
The governor said he understands the frustration of Minnesotans who want him to move faster in relaxing social distancing rules, but now is not the time.
“In Minnesota, this would be the equivalent of New York opening up right before they started up their curve,” Walz said. “We have learned from other people.”