A case of the novel coronavirus transmitting from a dead body to a medical examiner has been reported in Thailand. The new finding sparks larger safety concerns for morgue and funeral workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Not just the medical examiners, but morgue technicians, and the people in funeral homes need to take extra care,” pathologist Angelique Corthals of CUNY-John Jay College of Medicine in New York, told Buzzfeed News. “It is a real concern.”
Little is known about long the virus can survive in dead bodies, or whether corpses can be contagious to people who handle them.
“There is low chance of forensic medicine professionals coming into contact with infected patients, but they can have contact with biological samples and corpses,” Won Sriwijitalai and Viroj Wiwanitkit wrote in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine. “At present, there is no data on the exact number of COVID-19 contaminated corpses since it is not a routine practice to examine for COVID-19 in dead bodies in Thailand.”
Health policy expert Summer Johnson McGee of the University of New Haven told BuzzFeed News via email, “Anyone coming into contact with a COVID19 positive body, alive or dead, should be using personal protective equipment to prevent exposure.”
Coroners are increasingly being asked to conduct investigations into causes of death for patients who have died and for those who have not been tested, she noted, in efforts to trace contacts with exposed family members, neighbors and co-workers. Thus, autopsies and post-death formalities pose a serious risk for coroners.
The Issue With PostMortem Handling and Funerals
The handling of individuals diagnosed with COVID-19 postmortem, particularly how COVID-19 is affecting burial practices, is a global dilemma. In New York City, laborers are digging trenches at Hart Island to become mass graves as a result of a surge in coronavirus-related deaths in the city. About two dozen bodies are being buried on Hart Island every day.
Previously, inmates from the city’s jail on Rikers Island handled burials, but with the prison being hit by the virus, the city has hired contractors to do burials and maintain safe social distancing guidelines.
Across the world and cultures, people are changing the way they bury their loved ones. Funeral services at most churches, synagogues, temples and mosques have been suspended indefinitely under nationwide social-distancing orders. The New York Times reports many cemeteries are permitting only one funeral home employee, one religious leader and one family representative at burials.
In its March 24 guidance on burials of COVID-19, the World Health Organization (WHO) said dead bodies are generally not infectious. However, it recommends relatives not touch or kiss the body of a loved one who died from coronavirus complications.
Corthals stated, “We need to take care of the people who take care of the dead.”