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Illnesses at Tucson funeral home highlight risks to 'last responders' during pandemic
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Illnesses at Tucson funeral home highlight risks to 'last responders' during pandemic

From the May's Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: Cases rise, judge rules that state can keep nursing home data from public series

Experts say transmission from a dead body is possible but unlikely

Numerous employees at a Tucson funeral home contracted coronavirus, but experts say it is unlikely they were infected by the body of a COVID-19 victim.

Adair Funeral Homes temporarily closed its Dodge Chapel after “a number” of staff members fell ill and were sent home to recover in self-quarantine, according to a written statement from the company.

The incident highlights lingering questions about how the virus is transmitted, and it underscores the essential work still being done by so-called “last responders” in the community’s morgues and mortuaries.

“They really are heroes, but they don’t get the recognition they deserve, because it’s death and nobody wants to talk about that,” said Judith Stapley, executive director of the Arizona State Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers.

Adair did not identify the suspected source of the outbreak. It’s unclear if the Dodge Chapel has handled any of the more than 80 people who have died from the coronavirus in Pima County.

Dr. Greg Hess, chief medical examiner for the county, said it is doubtful the outbreak at the mortuary came from a corpse.

“Are we hearing that someone has contracted COVID from a dead body? We’re not,” Hess said. “It’s possible, but honestly there is a much greater risk of contracting it from somewhere else.”

Funeral homes deemed “essential” by state

Adair said other employees who did not develop symptoms but were exposed to those who did also were advised to stay home and isolate themselves.

The funeral home on North Dodge Boulevard near East Speedway has since been “professionally cleaned, disinfected and sterilized,” the company’s statement said.

“While our Adair Dodge facility was offline, families were served remotely or out of Avalon Chapel, Adair’s second location in Tucson,” the company said.

Gov. Doug Ducey has declared funeral services as essential businesses in Arizona, but Stapley said they are not under a mandate to operate in a certain way. There is no official ban on large funeral gatherings, for example, she said, adding, “All you can hope for is best practices by funeral homes.”

The results have been a mixed bag so far.

Stapley said many funeral businesses are going above and beyond to protect their employees and customers, while a few operators continue to flout the recommendations from regulators and health experts.

But the vast majority of those in the funeral industry continue to provide a much-needed service under trying circumstances, she said. And it is definitely not the sort of work they can do from home.

Existing protocols guard against virus

Anxiety is running high, even among those most accustomed to illness and death.

Since the pandemic began, Stapley said she has received complaints from a few mortuary operators who are upset at hospitals that do not warn them when they come to pick up the bodies of COVID-19 victims.

She said such notification would be nice, but the best way for funeral home workers to protect themselves is by using “the same universal precautions they do with everyone.”

Hess agreed.

If morgues and mortuaries follow their usual protocols, take care to avoid mistakes and “not be cavalier” about safety, he said, there is very little chance they will get the coronavirus from someone who has died from it.

As for his own staff, Hess said the only significant coronavirus-related change they’ve made is wearing masks when they respond to scenes. Most of the other recommended precautions for avoiding infection are already built into the safety measures they practice every day, he said.

Ultimately, Hess said, a mortuary is no more likely to experience an outbreak than any other hands-on business or facility that remains open while the virus is widespread.

“It gets sensationalized because it involves the funeral home industry,” he said, but “if we suddenly tested everyone in Pima County, we’d probably end up with a whopping high number (of cases), for whatever that’s worth.”

Genetic testing could point to source

Even so, University of Arizona researcher Michael Worobey said he would still love to talk to — and maybe collect a few samples from — the Dodge Chapel employees who contracted the virus.

The head of the university’s department of ecology and evolutionary biology is using genomic testing to try to learn more about COVID-19 and trace its movements.

He said comparing samples from various mortuary workers could provide insight into how they were infected and definitively rule out whether it was transmitted by a body.

If you can catch coronavirus from a door handle or a handshake, you could certainly get it from touching a dead person’s skin, Worobey said.

“It’s very possible for someone working with a corpse to become infected by that corpse. It’s not highly likely, but it’s certainly possible,” he said.

According to Stapley, Arizona is home to 180 licensed funeral homes and 60 crematories. There are 23 funeral homes and 11 crematories in Pima County.

Adair Funeral Homes was bought out late last year by Foundation Partners Group, one of the nation’s largest mortuary and crematory operators. The Orlando, Florida-based company now owns six funeral homes in the Tucson area.

Adair said it was happy to report on Friday that all of its staff members have recovered from the coronavirus.

“As their quarantine periods end, they are returning to work to assist Tucson-area families in need,” the company said.

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@tucson.com or 520-573 4283. On Twitter: @RefriedBrean

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