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Medical Examiner: Alternate body storage may be needed if more people die of COVID-19

By Sudhiti Naskar

Multiple officials are reporting a crisis situation in Washoe County from spiking COVID-19 cases and daily deaths.

“It’s hitting home for many of us,” Mayor Hillary Schieve tearfully said during the weekly Truckee Meadows COVID Risk Meter update on Tuesday. Schieve pleaded with people to take the pandemic seriously and said that she is regularly getting information from friends that they have the disease.

The communication from officials is loud and clear: unless Nevadans self-discipline and take strict measures to stop the spread, the Health District and other departments have little hope of preventing unnecessary deaths from COVID-19 that has reached a critical level in the state.

District Health Officer Kevin Dick again compared the situation to a devastating wildfire.

In the past month, 30 people passed away from COVID-19 in Washoe County.

“Yesterday alone we reported six additional deaths,” said Dick. ​Nationally almost 260,000 people have died from the virus.

“Tragically, with the deaths we have had in Washoe County, we have had over 250 residents that are gone, and [their families] are celebrating Thanksgiving without those individuals this year,” Dick said.

For perspective, Dick compared the numbers from a month ago. On Oct. 24, “we were at 140 cases per day. Today on a seven-day moving average we are at 513.4 [new cases],” he said. This is a three and a half times increase in new cases per day. 

There are four times as many active cases of COVID-19 in Washoe County as there were in October, with 8,259 active cases as of Wednesday, up from 1,872 last month. Total cases recorded are 23,264 and have nearly doubled compared to a month ago.

“We have COVID-19 exploding in our community,” Dick said. 

The region is being stressed by the number of cases. In the last couple of weeks hospitalizations are “really going through the roof,” said Dr. Eric Nielsen, an ER physician at Renown.

Lack of staff availability, which is being experienced nationally, is also being felt in the region. First responders and health workers are reporting exhaustion and sickness. Many are remaining isolated for 10-14 days after they have been exposed to COVID-19 in the community, officials reported. 

According to Dick and Schieve, the staff-strained healthcare system means patients may not get the urgent and adequate care needed. 

“If you get sick with COVID, there may be nobody that can provide care to you,” Dick said. “If you get into a car accident or another trauma, there may be nobody to take care of you.”

Doctors would increase consultations via telemedicine to deal with the staff shortage, said officials. Patients will be quickly discharged and allowed to convalesce at home to make room for new critical patients.

Temporary bedding at Reno Events Center for people living homeless. Image: Trevor Bexon

Running short on space

City and county officials are actively working with local healthcare providers to increase spaces for a continuing COVID-19 outbreak. Schieve said the city is willing to open the Reno Events Center, if required, and put more infrastructure and beds in place, possibly within 3 to 5 days.

Refrigerated shipping containers may be needed if the COVID-19 body count continues to rise. Washoe County’s Medical Examiner, Dr. Laura Knight, today said increasing deaths are creating storage capacity issues for local funeral homes, and that may in turn stress the county’s ability to store bodies if cases continue to climb.

“It may stress our regional capacity to store bodies,” she said.

There is also a high likelihood that with all of the gatherings during Thanksgiving, the COVID-19 Risk Meter is going to go to the “severe” purple zone, officials said.  

Dick explained that many people might get a negative test before visiting their family during Thanksgiving. This would drive the numbers up. He warned that getting a negative test does not mean one is safe to socialize. He reminded people that one may be in the incubation period of the virus while getting a negative test and may not show any symptoms.

Recommendations

  • Limit socialization as much as possible
  • Don’t have people in your home other than whom you already live with
  • Go out only for work, visiting doctors and to get necessities, such as food 
  • Continue wearing masks when around others
  • Shop online, support local businesses and use curbside pickup services.

Numbers at-a-glance

  • Total COVID-19 cases in Washoe County: 23,264 up from 19,742 last week
  • Deaths: 258, up from 222 last week
  • Recovered: 14,747, up from 13,642 last week
  • Active Cases: 8,259 up from 5,878 last week
  • Tests performed: 229,746 up from 212,597 last week

According to the Nevada Hospital Association, in Washoe County as of Nov. 25:

  • 83% staffed hospital beds are occupied (+0% since 11/24)
  • 71% of all licensed hospital beds are occupied (+0%)
  • 59% of all Intensive Care Unit beds are occupied (+4%)
  • 31% of all ventilators are in use (+1%)

NOTE: Numbers are for all hospital patients in Washoe County and not just COVID-19 patients.

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