3 mortuary trailers on standby in event Honolulu morgue runs out of space

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Published: Aug. 19, 2021 at 5:35 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Although COVID deaths haven’t spiked as much as cases, the City and County of Honolulu is preparing for the worst.

Emergency officials are working to build up capacity to treat the dead with dignity in the event the morgue, hospitals and mortuary facilities run out of space.

Last year, the Honolulu Fire Department spent about $330,000 dollars of its CARES funding to buy three mortuary trailers. They arrived on Oahu in January.

It’s a purchase usually only made in times of disaster.

“This is a topic we really wish we weren’t having to talk about,” said Honolulu Emergency Services Department director Jim Ireland. “Sadly COVID-19 is a disaster.”

Officials say the hope is to never have to use the trailers. But if the time does come when they’re needed they’ll have a space to compassionately store human remains.

“Each of these refrigerated containers has the ability to house 50 of our loved ones with dignity and respect,” said Honolulu Fire Department Acting Chief Lionel Camara.

Hawaii News Now asked the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency exactly how much mortuary storage there is on Oahu and what’s currently available. The agency wasn’t able to provide the exact figures. But a spokesman responded, “At this time, I can write with confidence that there are no mortuary capacity issues facing the state.”

While the trailers have yet to be deployed, the lead investigator at the Medical Examiner’s Office says they’ve come close to needing them.

“It’s been tight at times,” said Charlotte Carter.

Initially COVID restrictions prompted funeral delays. With the lockdown now lifted folks are getting back to their normal routines.

Carter said, “People are still drowning. People are still dying from cancer. And naturally. And heart attacks. And all of those events are happening regardless of COVID.”

With the number of active COVID infections in Hawaii surpassing 8,600, major facilities no longer have space in their intensive care units and emergency rooms.

“Hospitals now are basically overwhelmed,” Ireland said. “They’re right on the edge of not being able to continue to care for people with COVID or any other illness.”

He says it’s up to the community to turn things around.

“We want to see people get vaccinated. We don’t want to see anyone end up here. We just don’t. And it’s not too late,” said Ireland.

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