A refrigerated trailer that San Antonio health officials bought to store corpses as morgues in hospitals and funeral homes reach their capacity with coronavirus disease (COVID-19) deaths. Bexar County, Texas, July 15, 2020.
City of San Antonio | Reuters
Officials and funeral directors in Texas order additional body bags and refrigerated trucks to prepare for an increase in deaths from Covid-19, which has already killed 3,657 people in the state.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency will send 14 refrigerated trucks to the state next week – in addition to the eight already sent – as a temporary morgue, while some funeral directors reserve their own trucks from private companies.
"The directors I spoke to last week are busy or overwhelmed, so they had to bring the trailers with them," said Gene Allen, president of the Texas Funeral Directors Association.
Travis County, which is located in Austin, is currently procuring three additional hearses "out of caution," said information officer Hector Nieto in an interview.
The state does not yet need the additional hearses, said Seth Christensen, a spokesman for the Texas Division of Emergency Management. They are on standby in the event that local communities are overrun by Covid 19 deaths.
"We want to stay up to date and be prepared when we need it," said Christensen.
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FEMA sent eight hearses to Texas in early April when the state reported fewer than 1,000 new cases a day, according to the Texas Department of Health. The number of cases has increased dramatically since then and reached a record 10,791 new cases on Wednesday, according to the state. 10,291 new infections were confirmed on Thursday.
Deaths and hospitalizations have not increased as quickly in the past few weeks, but epidemiologists say that this can take a while after someone has been diagnosed before being hospitalized and dying. Some patients have long battles before succumbing to Covid-19, such as Broadway actor Nick Cordero, who died earlier this month after spending more than three months in hospital.
Given the increasing number of cases in Texas, the increase in hospital stays is not far away. Hospital admissions for Covid-19 were 10,457 on Thursday, more than four times that of 2,518 a month ago. This comes from data compiled by the Covid Tracking Project, a volunteer project by journalists in the Atlantic.
And deaths in Texas have already increased, averaging 93 a day on Thursday, based on an average of seven days, according to Hopkins, of around 20 deaths a day a month ago.
In the outbreak, local officials are trying to set up testing facilities and increase their hospital capacity. Houston, the fourth largest city in the country, "is facing a situation in which our numbers have increased. More and more people are testing positive and appearing in our hospitals and intensive care units," Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a conference call with the New Yorker Governor Andrew Cuomo on Thursday.
According to Cuomo, New York has sent teams to Houston to help set up test sites, work with churches, and deliver hand sanitizers, personal protective equipment, and test kits.
The coronavirus strikes particularly hard in the southern part of the state, which has a higher Hispanic population and an average lower income than the rest of Texas. Local officials have been affected. Epidemiologists have found that blacks and Hispanic Americans have died disproportionately more frequently from Covid-19 than whites.
Officials in the Hidalgo and Starr counties near the Mexican border have previously warned that their hospitals are already running at full capacity and have asked residents to seek protection and avoid large gatherings. Hidalgo County reported 150 deaths from Covid-19 on Tuesday, more than three times the number since July 1, according to the Texas Department of Health.
Medical workers wear full PPE when they wrap sheets around a deceased patient on June 30, 2020, at Covid-19 Intensive Care Unit at the United Memorial Medical Center in Houston, Texas.
Go Nakamura | Getty Images
The U.S. Department of Defense deploys the Army Urban Augmentation Medical Task Force to the Rio Grande Valley at the southernmost tip of Texas Governor Greg Abbott said on Wednesday to provide additional doctors, nurses, and other health workers to hospitals.
The economic data are also stacked against Hidalgo County. The median household income is $ 38,398, more than 32% of the population under 65 is not insured, and 30% of all residents live in poverty. This comes from data from the US census, which was collected from 2014 to 2018. By comparison, the US median income was $ 60,293, approximately 10% of all Americans were uninsured, and 11.8% lived in poverty.
The heat in Texas could not help either, experts warned. People over 65 are most at risk from heat-related illnesses and the coronavirus. While around 90% of US households have air conditioning, according to the US Census, this is not the case for a disproportionate number of low-income families and minorities.
The Texas Funeral Directors Group has shipped three of its four refrigerated trucks, which are typically used during the hurricane season, to southern Texas, Allen said.
"I stopped trying to guess this thing," he said when asked how the outbreak of the Covid 19 crisis could be compared to other natural disasters. "South Texas has just been hit hard."
Timothy Brown, manager of the Ric Brown family's funeral home in McAllen, said up to 85% of requests had been received in the past 15 days were for Covid-19 deaths. The funeral director plans services for around seven to eight days, when the wait is usually a few days, he said.
"I spoke to about five funeral directors in the same situation," said Brown. "The deaths here in Hidalgo County are very bad. Most funeral directors are at full capacity."
Funeral directors north of Hidalgo are also beginning to prepare. John Winstead, funeral director at Seaside Funeral Home and Memorial Park in Corpus Christi, said his funeral home had reserved an additional truck through a private company in case space was tight, even though they weren't fully utilized.
Corpus Christi in Nueces County is about two hours north of Hidalgo on the Gulf of Mexico. Nueces County judge Barbara Canales informed local NBC subsidiary KRIS-TV last week that she had received a letter from the county medical examiner asking for an additional FEMA hearse. Nueces County has reported 50 more deaths since July 1 in Texas, according to the DSHS. A Canales spokesman was unavailable for comment.
"I have to order additional body bags and morgue trailers now," said Canales. "People have to understand how real it is."