There are 101 county coroners in Illinois and one medical examiner, here in Cook County. On Tuesday, all of them got on a conference call to talk about COVID-19 and the concerns they have about handling cases that may involve coronavirus. After the call, Cook County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Ponni Arunkumar spoke with the I-Team.
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“A local case surge could be hundreds of cases, thousands of cases,” Dr. Arunkumar said. “We need to be prepared for it.”
At the Cook County morgue, a trailer is a sign that the number of coronavirus deaths is likely to get far worse. It is a refrigerated unit, with a large sheet of plywood to block the view when bodies are moved.
These trailers were needed in the 1995 heat wave when nearly 740 people died during a blistering five-day stretch. Here, yellow tape isn’t to mark a crime scene but displays the word “caution” – an important word these days.
“We have cases going into the refrigerated trailer and were doing the external exam and the swabs in the trailer,” Dr. Arunkumar said.
In most cases, she said COVID-19 can be confirmed safely through a lab test and external exam, not subject doctors and technicians to possible aerosol contamination during a more dangerous internal exam.
GOUDIE: What is your worst case scenario?
ARUNKUMAR: A lot more deaths than an office can handle. But you know, we need to be prepared for any eventuality wherever. We are looking at more storage space for example not just our trailers…
GOUDIE: Away from your campus or in the parking lot?
ARUNKUMAR: We’re looking at spaces away from our parking lot.
Her training, expertise and business is something many people find difficult to discuss. Her outlook and final words, are inspiring.
“We are the last physicians who see these patients, so they need to be treated with dignity,” she said.
Dr. Arunkumar had to invoke that philosophy two more times Tuesday as an additional pair of COVID-19 deaths were announced in Cook County: a 69-year-old man in Oak Lawn and a 62-year-old man in Chicago.
WATCH: Suburban coroners reveal their pandemic plans
On Facebook, Lake County Illinois coroner Dr. Howard Cooper spoke directly to residents about his pandemic plans.
“The problem with the virus is that it affects everyone differently,” he said.
In DuPage County, the coroner’s office has begun coronavirus screening on all arriving bodies, asking questions of relatives regarding their loved one’s illnesses and recent travel.
DuPage County Coroner Richard Jorgensen told the I-Team that he has implemented strict new rules for handling any body that arrives with suspicion of coronavirus.
“We are going to double-bag that body and use bleach-type sanitizer all over the outside of the bag and be very careful how we handle it,” Jorgensen said. “We have the ability to store 60 bodies in our morgue, but we are already taking precautions for the possibility of more.”
Several suburban coroners told the I-Team that coronavirus deaths are considered natural deaths that don’t involve coroners; people die in the hospital and go to a funeral home. Kane County Coroner Rob Russell said funeral homes may run out room and that he could have to obtain trailers to help them with storage.
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