Coronavirus deaths begin to stress Valley mortuary industry

A body is carried out of McAllen Medical Center on Wednesday, July 8, 2020, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

The evening someone tests positive for COVID-19 in Hidalgo County, they appear on a list the county sends out with the city they live in. A new case with no name, accompanied by their approximate age and their gender.

If that person gets better, in a couple of weeks they’ll move to the county’s recovered tally. If they get worse, they may get hospitalized, and the county will shift them over to that list.

If they get a lot worse, they’ll end up on a register of COVID-19 patients the county says are in intensive care units.

If they never get better and succumb to the virus, they’ll be among the deaths Hidalgo County confirms almost on a nightly basis, added to the ever-growing COVID-19 death toll here.

Currently, that number sits at 123.

That’ll be the end of the reporting for that case, but not the end of the story.

That person’s body will ultimately get wheeled out of the hospital, into the back of a car and driven to a morgue or a funeral home in a mostly unseen stream of COVID-19 casualties that’s largely invisible to the general public, and that’s beginning to flood the banks of what some of the county’s funeral industry can handle.

It’s not hard to find evidence of that process, if you know where to look. In fact, you may be holding some of it in your hands.

If you’re reading this edition in print, flip to pages 8A and 9A. You’ll notice 53 death notices and several obituaries, spread across 205 inches of newsprint.

The Monitor usually averages five to 10 death notices a day, sometimes up to 15 to 20 in the fall. On a Monday, there might be more than average to accommodate deaths over the weekend.

Ordinarily, anything over 25 notices is considered rare.

At over 50 souls, the amount of death notices printed on 9A is unprecedented, and it’s just the latest in a steady increase in death notices that’s flowed into the newsroom since the pandemic surged in the Rio Grande Valley and more people began dying daily of COVID-19.

There’s so many death notices coming in, it’s hard to find space for all of them.

Lee Castro, funeral director at Legacy Chapels in Edinburg, is also having trouble finding space. On Tuesday, he said the six spaces in his cooler at Legacy were filled and three more bodies were in an auxiliary rack outside.

“We’re not at breaking point yet, but if we keep getting four or five calls a day, we’re going to be in trouble,” he said.

Hidalgo County Emergency Management Coordinator Ricardo Saldaña echoed the sentiment that the situation is getting serious and said the county was taking steps to prepare for the influx of human remains.

“The number of deaths that are occurring, whether they be COVID-19 or natural causes or through accidents, is becoming a concern for us,” he said, adding that a refrigerated truck to potentially store bodies in, is already in the region and finding a second unit is a definite possibility.

“We’re ready should that need occur,” Saldaña said. “As of right now, nobody’s reached out to us to use it and the morgue still has space to be able to put some bodies there before we start placing bodies in it.”

Despite that, Castro says the torrent of corpses remains a concern to him, and Legacy isn’t the only outfit feeling the pressure. He says that pressure isn’t being distributed equally to everybody in the industry, though: some funeral homes, he says, won’t even take COVID-19 fatalities, while others do take them but aren’t experiencing the same capacity issues yet and simply aren’t getting as many coronavirus-related bodies.

“It’s interesting,”John Kreidler with Kreidler Funeral Home said. “I’ve had a lot of funerals since this has all been going on, but last night was the first corona-attributed death that we’ve had since March, actually. I don’t know where the other people that have died are going, which funeral homes they’re going to.”

Castro knows exactly where they’re going — some of them, at least. He says that Legacy has been processing many of the county’s coronavirus fatalities, so many he doesn’t remember how many of the virus’ victims have come through his door.

“It feels like it’s getting crazier,” he said.

Castro hopes that the state may waive a 48-hour wait period for corpses, which would allow him to perform cremations faster. He says that would help clear the backlog and speed up the process. Either way, it looks like he’ll be busy picking up the bodies of coronavirus’ victims for the foreseeable future.

Both times Castro talked to The Monitor, on Tuesday and Thursday, there were more bodies awaiting him. He’ll frequently work late into the night, sometimes watching hospital staff clean a deceased person’s room as he’s removing the body, cleaning quickly so another patient in the critically full COVID-19 wards can be moved in.

DHR Health Board Chairman Dr. Carlos Cardenas says Legacy and other funeral homes help DHR and other hospitals expedite that process. He says DHR’s morgue does not have a capacity issue.

“We’re not in the mortuary business. We have patients who are deceased for a period of time, so we have a designated morgue but we’re not in the mortuary business, so we tried to get disposition in a dignified way to the people who do that,” he said.

Chuck Stark, regional vice president of South Texas Health System, says employees at the system’s hospitals try to honor the deceased as much as they can in that process.

“All hospitals in the Rio Grande Valley are responding to the well-documented surge in COVID-19 cases throughout our communities. As everyone knows, some people have passed away after contracting the virus and our experience in the Valley is no different,” he wrote in a statement. “At South Texas Health System we continue to honor the wishes of families and patients throughout their care, including at the time of one’s death. We are working closely with local funeral homes and greatly appreciate all they are doing to help the community during these difficult times.”

There might be no one in the county who has more first-hand knowledge about that process than Juan Lopez, the director for transport at Elite Transportation and Cleanup Service in McAllen. He’s been picking up and transporting bodies in the Valley since the limo company he was driving for left the Valley for Las Vegas 20 years ago.

But he’s never experienced anything quite like the pandemic.

Lopez claims that in one day he picked up the bodies of 15 people with COVID-19 who died of the coronavirus in the county. He did another 10 on Wednesday and didn’t finish working till 4 a.m.

“I’m tired,” he said Wednesday afternoon, on his way to pick up another coronavirus casualty. “It’s been crazy today. This is my 10th body for today. All of them from COVID.”

Lopez says his workload has roughly tripled.

“We used to pick up just three, two bodies a day. Maybe 10 bodies a week. Now we’re picking up 10 bodies a day, six bodies a day. We’re picking up 30 bodies a week. It’s scary,” he said.

Some of the COVID-19 deaths are older, Lopez said, but some are fairly young.

“We’ve had several in their 20s, 30s, 40s …” he said.

Lopez says he asks hospitals to wrap the bodies up in sheets first and then put them in a body bag before he picks them up. He suits up and does his best to protect himself when he goes inside.

“I got the suits, I’ve got everything. I try to cover the most that I can because I have family, I’ve got my kids, and I’ve got friends. I don’t want to catch it and give it to my friends,” he said.

Lopez has good reason to be worried. He says last week a doctor friend of his he’s known for 20 years wasn’t feeling well. That doctor, he said, went to the emergency room Sunday and is in ICU now.

Despite the fatigue, the daunting numbers and the imminent danger, Lopez retains his faith.

“I’m gonna keep up,” he said. “God is great, God is good. I’m a big believer in God, so I know he has something for me.”

That faith is being put to the test. Thursday was slower, but he said he was still steadily employed picking up bodies. The news that at least 1,274 new cases in the county had been confirmed that day astonished him.

“I’m the one that’s going to be picking up all those bodies,” Lopez said. “Don’t be surprised if I tell you I picked up 100 bodies one day.”

Lopez charges $100 a body, but that rate may have to go up to find more help. He says he’s looking for more drivers and he’s sure he’ll need them.