First Call Mortuary Services: Oregon mortuary workers brace for possible PPE shortage

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CLACKAMAS COUNTY, Ore. (KOIN) — Oregon leaders and medical professionals have been vocal about the need for an increased supply of personal protective equipment for frontline workers like nurses, doctors, paramedics. Those who respond after a patient has died, though, have largely gone unrecognized.

“We’re on the front lines. Our industry is asked at a moment’s notice to respond when there’s been a death,” said Wally Ordeman, interim executive director of the Oregon Funeral Directors Association.

About 60% of the state’s funeral homes are members of the association. Ordeman said the possibility of PPE shortages has been on member’s minds. They’re waiting for federal officials to deliver PPE to Oregon where it will then be up to each county’s emergency services to distribute the gear, Ordeman said.

"If things escalate and FEMA has been able to allot the necessary PPE to Oregon, then we’re gonna be okay,” he told KOIN 6 News. “If they haven’t, I think you’re gonna see some funeral homes in a tough situation.”

The deathcare industry includes funeral homes, crematories, cemeteries, mortuary transport services and more. The workers typically use the same PPE as medical workers: Masks, gloves and gowns. Now, industry experts say those supplies are scarce.

River View Cemetery executive director Rachel Essig said her staff took inventory to figure out how long their current PPE will last. They have an order in with their vendor, but it will be about six weeks before that order is filled. When asked if the cemetery and funeral home would last that long, she said it would be close.

“I know that there are some funeral homes that are struggling and we’re all in communication together about sharing supplies,” Essig said. “But it is a major, major issue for us.”

Deathcare industry consultant Deon Strommer said mortuary transport workers (those who pick bodies up from hospitals, nursing homes or any other location there’s been a death) are being conservative with their PPE.

“We’re not wearing it on every call. We wouldn’t have enough. We’d run out,” Strommer said. “So we’ve asked the hospitals and doctors to notify us if it’s a potential COVID case so that we can dress properly. But if I went to every death call, assumed it was a COVID case, I’d run through PPE too fast.”

“Everything would come to a halt”

Strommer said it’s impossible to predict what will happen. He serves on a federal disaster response team, assisting after Huricane Katrina, in Puerto Rico and, most recently, helping quarantine travelers to the U.S. from Wuhan, China and a Japanese cruise ship. His experience has taught him that running out of supplies is a risk that can happen in any disaster.

“I’m a real proponent of not spreading fear,” he said. “There’s a potential of a shortage. Right now we’ve not felt that pinch, but we’re being very conservative with our PPE right now.”

And if deathcare workers can’t get any PPE? “Everything would come to a halt,” he said. “At some point it becomes a very political hot potato to not take care of the dead.”

Ordeman said severe PPE shortages could result in deathcare workers using the same masks multiple times, like we’ve seen in the medical field.

“If the materials and resources aren’t there, they aren’t there,” he said.

During a Monday morning virtual press conference, KOIN 6 News asked Oregon Governor Kate Brown about the industry’s concerns. She said she would “certainly include” deathcare professionals in the same arena as other frontline workers. The issue, she said, is that Oregon has gotten around a quarter of its requests from the federal government. She suggested President Donald Trump could “apply the Defense Production Act and require industries, manufacturers across the country to make personal protective equipment.”

Continuing Coverage: Coronavirus

Those who handle the dead are dealing with stressful times, Ordeman said. Not only worried about their own safety, but also having to navigate uncharted waters as funerals are postponed indefinitely.

“They’re in a tough spot having these awkward conversations with families, having to restrict what families want to do,” he said. “I say often that funeral directors are trying to put rational solutions to an emotional situation. And ration and emotions don’t always hold hands very well.”

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