To Prepare for ‘Surge in Deaths' From COVID-19, Cook County Opens Refrigerated Warehouse to Store Thousands of Bodies

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To prepare for a surge in COVID-19 deaths, Cook County officials on Thursday opened a refrigerated warehouse to store thousands of additional bodies.

The 66,000-square foot refrigerated “surge center” can hold more than 2,000 bodies, and is located about five miles from the county’s Near West Side morgue, according to a statement office of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

So far, the county has seen more than 300 deaths from the coronavirus, making up more than 70% of COVID-19 deaths statewide.

“While my hope is that we have made plans that we will not have to utilize, I realize that my administration has a responsibility to prepare for a surge in deaths due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Preckwinkle said in the statement. “We are working diligently to ensure that the victims of this virus are treated with dignity while under our care.”

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In March, the medical examiner’s office installed its first refrigerated trailer behind its office for suspected COVID-19 cases. That’s when the county had only two confirmed coronavirus deaths.

The new center is managed by the county’s Department of Emergency Management and Regional Security (EMRS), which has also acquired 14 refrigerated trailers to be positioned outside hospital morgues to ease overcrowding, Preckwinkle’s office said. They’re in the process of securing six more trailers for the surge center.

William Barnes, executive director of EMRS, said his department is paying special attention to underserved communities in southern Cook County — an area that is “traditionally disproportionately impacted during crises.”

Preckwinkle’s office hasn’t disclosed the location of the new surge center.

Over the past decade, the medical examiner’s office and EMRS have been preparing for a situation like the COVID-19 outbreak by conducting pandemic and mass casualty exercises, Preckwinkle’s office said.

“We are the last physicians these individuals will ever have and we take that responsibility very seriously,” The county’s Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Ponni Arunkumar said in the statement. “We treat these patients with dignity and respect. We treat them the way we would want our loved ones to be treated.”

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