SURREY (NEWS 1130) — At least one refrigerated morgue truck, equipped to hold 46 bodies, has been deployed to the Fraser Health region — but only as a backup.
The truck was sent out on Christmas Eve amid worries that deaths from illicit drug overdoses and COVID-19 might spike over the holidays, according to Dr. Jatinder Baidwan, Chief Medical Officer of the BC Coroner’s Service.
“It is traditionally a time of year when death rates are higher. So, essentially it was prudent to think about deploying at that stage. And actually, when we look back now, it made sense. So, that’s the kind of thinking and the planning that goes around it and it’s very very intentional,” he explains.
“These refrigerated containers, they are held in reserve. They’re only put in when we think there might be an increased pressure coming up.”
RELATED: B.C. surpasses 1,000 COVID-19 deaths
More than half of the province’s deaths from the virus have been in the Fraser health region, but Baidwan stresses that morgues are not at or even near capacity.
“We’ve got plenty of capacity in the province, as a system. We have plenty of capacity, I have no concern,” he says.
But Baidwan understands why the sight of one of these trucks in B.C. might be distressing.
“We all remember seeing those horrific sequences that were put in front of us on the television from New York City, from California, where people were sort of dumping bodies in the back of the truck,” he says.
“When people talk about refrigerated containers, that’s immediately where people’s minds go and I can understand that. That’s why I’m being very, you know, calm and collected and telling you exactly what we’re doing because it is nothing like that.”
Whenever a mortuary needs to temporarily expand — whether by bringing in a refrigerated truck or setting up a temporary structure like a tent — the dignity of the deceased is top of mind.
“This kind of thing happens all the time. This is not unusual, to use refrigerated containers to store bodies But it’s the way we do it, it’s how intentional you are in terms of thinking, ‘Are you doing it properly? Are you respecting the fact that this is a person who has loved ones who care about them?’ he says, adding an ethicist was brought in to consult on plans to expand mortuary capacity.
“We’ve been intentional in that process we’ve thought about these things. And that’s what allowed us to actually come up with a plan that allows us to expand our capacity, but do it in a way which means that our loved ones are respected.”
The largest factor increasing the number of deaths in the province continues to be fatal overdoses, Baidwan stresses.
“The problem at the moment really isn’t that COVID-19 deaths have increased it’s the fact that we’re still seeing such a number of deaths from the opiate crisis. That’s the problem.”
Opioid overdoses killed more than 1,500 people in British Columbia between January and November of 2020.
With files from Liza Yuzda