Marshall County Coroner’s office has had a two-bay morgue cooler for the past 15 years. An increased number of deaths related to COVID-19 and murders forced officials to find alternatives, including a mobile morgue and now a larger cooler.
Coroner Cody Nugent said the two-bay cooler met the county’s needs years ago, but times have changed.
“There have been numerous times pre-pandemic that we would exceed holding capacity,” Nugent said.
“Anytime there is a body that has to be held for an investigative hold, or if we have an unclaimed individual, that takes up space.”
Investigative holds are placed on bodies in cases of murder, unattended deaths or other suspicious circumstances. Unclaimed individuals include those who may not have next of kin or no one to step up to claim the body, Nugent said.
In 2019, Nugent said the county logged 165 deaths and 2 homicides. By the end of 2020, 240 deaths were logged with 11 murders.
“I can’t say COVID caused the increase in deaths for sure,” Nugent said, “but we know some of them were due to COVID.”
Many mistakenly believe funeral homes and the local hospitals have coolers, but only Guntersville Memorial Chapel has a recently installed cooler. They have the only crematorium in the area, Nugent said.
“With the pandemic, whether people died from COVID or not, COVID is causing a backup in the system,” he said. “Often times, someone may die of COVID, and that person’s spouse and family members may be at home in quarantine with COVID as well. It could take two weeks or more for the family to be able to come in to make funeral arrangements at a funeral home. The body has to be stored somewhere until then.”
Marshall Medical Centers Chief Nursing Officer Kathy Woodruff said with number of COVID cases steadily increasing over the past several weeks, the mobile unit and now the expanded cooler helps the hospital.
Marshall County logged 910 cases of COVID in the past 14 days.
“The mobile unit is important regardless of the number of deaths we have or how often they happen because neither hospital has a morgue. A lot of people make assumptions that every hospital has a morgue and that’s where we keep our patients when they pass away, but we don’t have that option,” said Woodruff.
Nugent said the pandemic forced county officials to address the need for additional and permanent storage space.
“The pandemic kind of opened the door for us,” he said. “We knew we needed more space in our morgue, but there was no suitable county-owned building. One day I would like to see us have our own morgue and coroner’s building, but that is something on my long-term list of goals.”
Nugent met with Marshall County Emergency Management Agency officials to discuss the CARES Act funds and whether or not installation of a new, larger cooler would be a reimbursable expense under the CARES Act.
“Once we knew it was, it was about a three- to four-week process to get Commission approval, seeking bids and finding somewhere to install the cooler,” Nugent said. “The project ended up costing about $20,000.”
Use of an outside facility was considered as a way to handle the increased number of bodies, but deemed not cost-effective, Nugent said. Once fees for transportation of the body and actual storage time were added up, it “could end up costing the county a good little bit,” so having a larger storage cooler or a mobile morgue saved money in the long run, he said.
The decision was made to install the morgue cooler at Carr Funeral Home in Guntersville, partly because they had an existing building large enough to accommodate the county’s needs, but also because they had suitable resources in place to handle bodies and medical-grade waste, Nugent said.
“The county had places we could put the cooler, but you have to think about resources, placement, dignity and set up,” he said. “We installed the mobile morgue at Carr’s because they could handle the medical waste for us which we wouldn’t have been able to do if we placed the mobile morgue off-site.
“Additionally, they have the resources in place to handle bodies and not many places would have that existing. Carr Funeral Home and Gamble Holding Co. has been good to work with us and allow us use of their garage at no cost. They have been super to work with.”
Carr Funeral Home will pay utility costs, while the county pays for any necessary maintenance costs.
The larger cooler allows the coroner’s office to hold up to 14 bodies at a time. Nugent said at times during the pandemic, he has had nine or more bodies on hold.
The new cooler is installed in a large garage at Carr Funeral Home in Guntersville. Not only is the garage secure, but so is the cooler.
“We have to keep everything as secure as possible so as not to contaminate any evidence that may be in there,” Nugent said. “Funeral home employees don’t have access to the cooler. Only me and my staff members do.”