Cowlitz County’s newly purchased refrigeration trailer is set to arrive Wednesday to increase the morgue’s cold storage, which remains above capacity as of Monday, according to the coroner’s office.
Over the weekend, the county recorded five new COVID-19 deaths, bringing the total to 158 since the pandemic began.
The Cowlitz County commissioners approved the trailer purchase and the related emergency declaration last Wednesday, after a recent increase in COVID-19 deaths overwhelmed the county’s limited cold storage capacity.
“They’re coming in faster than we can get them to funeral homes,” Deputy Coroner Brett Dundas said Monday. “The problem is not just storage, they have to process them as well, there’s a line there.”
Before the pandemic, the coroner’s office was seeing an increase in cases, in part because of the aging baby boomer population, Coroner Tim Davidson said last week. Not all recent deaths are from COVID-19, he said.
The refrigerated trailer will provide additional space until the coroner can move into the new morgue, which has a larger cold storage capacity, around Oct. 4.
Cowlitz County has recorded 20 new COVID-19 deaths in the last two weeks, according to the state Department of Health. The department considers data for the most recent 16 days incomplete, so that number may change.
The county recorded 175 new confirmed COVID-19 cases since Friday, bringing the total to 9,622 confirmed and 1,109 probable cases. PeaceHealth St. John Medical Center had 35 COVID-19 patients as of Monday morning.
Cowlitz County’s COVID-19 cases and hospitalization rates are decreasing, but remain above the state average.
Statewide, COVID-19 hospitalizations appear to be holding steady at a high rate and the number of patients on ventilators increased, said Taya Briley, Washington State Hospital Association executive vice president, during a news briefing Monday.
The state could be at the beginning of a plateau, but large events across state including fairs, Labor Day and school events may affect that trend, Briley said.
Briley said Washington is not at crisis standards of care — meaning hospitals aren’t denying lifesaving treatment to one patient to give it to another — but hospitals are in an “extremely challenging situation.”
Washington hospitals’ capacity is limited mostly because of staffing constraints and the hospital association is hearing concerns staffing levels will worsen when the deadline for the state’s vaccination mandate hits, Briley said.
Gov. Jay Inslee in August announced the requirement for most state employees, health and long-term care workers to be vaccinated by Oct. 18. PeaceHealth and Kaiser Permanente announced their own mandates earlier in August.
On Thursday, President Joe Biden ordered federal vaccine requirements for all employers with more than 100 workers requiring them to be vaccinated or tested for the virus weekly, as well as staff at facilities that receive Medicare or Medicaid.
Briley said there isn’t statewide data on hospital staff vaccination rates and anecdotally, rates vary widely among facilities. The new federal requirement may prevent some staff from quitting and going to work in another state, she said.
Hospitals are working through medical and religious exemption requests and accommodation plans, Briley said.