“We’re certainly over capacity,” said Charlotte Carter, the Honolulu Medical Examiner’s acting supervising medico-legal investigator. “Our facility holds 60 decedents. At the end of each day, we have to make sure we have enough space for anybody who dies overnight.”
As of Monday afternoon, Carter said, there were 50 spaces taken out of the 60 available at the Honolulu morgue, in addition to 28 in the refrigerated trailer parked outside and another 12 at an off-site facility.
Of the total, 13 are listed as COVID-19 positive. However, Carter said, that does not necessarily mean the deceased individuals died of the coronavirus and not from another cause — only that they had tested positive for COVID-19.
The trailer was delivered Tuesday to the Honolulu Medical Examiner’s Iwilei site, where it is parked outside, and has been in use as of late last week.
Much of the volume has to do with the ongoing pandemic, including the restrictions and impacts related to it, Carter said, and not only from COVID-19-related deaths.
For instance, some families of those who died from COVID-19 may be in quarantine and unable to make funeral arrangements until they are out, resulting in delays in transferring bodies to funeral homes. Others cannot afford to pay for funeral services, which also results in delays.
Families that prefer embalming to cremation, or who want a traditional memorial service with a viewing, and without gathering size limits, will also need more time.
The situation is fluid, Carter said, and can change overnight. But the Medi- cal Examiner’s office is slammed, and investigators lately have been working on multiple cases over the past few weeks.
In mid-August the Honolulu Fire Department announced at a news conference that it had purchased three morgue trailers with about $330,000 in federal CARES Act funds.
HFD made the purchase during the pandemic in August 2020 as a member of the Honolulu Incident Management Team.
Acting Fire Chief Lionel Camara Jr., who was then incident commander of the Honolulu Incident Management Team, determined that the three trailers — outfitted with steel carts and trays and capable of being refrigerated — were needed to prepare for worst-case scenarios.
The team noted that some metropolitan cities on the mainland were running out of morgue and mortuary space, and identified the need for the three containers if the Medical Examiner facility became overwhelmed.
During the height of the pandemic in 2020, the Honolulu Medical Examiner’s office had also informed the team that morgue and mortuary space on Oahu was quickly depleting.
Each of the refrigerated containers can house “up to 50 of our loved ones with dignity and respect,” said Camara during the news conference.
The death toll from the coronavirus continues to grow as daily case counts continue to mount.
On Monday the state Department of Health reported 720 new confirmed and probable coronavirus infections, bringing Hawaii’s total since the start of the pandemic to 62,949 cases. No new deaths were reported Monday, keeping the death toll at 589.
In just the past week, from Aug. 23 to Monday, however, Hawaii has recorded a high of 25 deaths.
“I’m thankful HFD had forethought to do this so when this finally hit, we are prepared for it,” said Carter. “That’s a big deal. If we had to wait for federal assets to be shipped or flown here, that would make this a much more dire situation.”