What precautions the Cook County medical examiner is taking with coronavirus deaths

Racks have been set up inside a refrigerate container in the morgue’s parking lot so bodies of people believed infected by the highly contagious virus can be examined there.

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Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, Cook County’s chief medical examiner, says her office is taking special precautions to handle bodies of those suspected infected with COVID-19

Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, Cook County’s chief medical examiner, says her office is taking special precautions to handle bodies of those suspected infected with COVID-19

Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

Though most coronavirus-related deaths are expected to happen in hospitals, Dr. Ponni Arunkumar said the Cook County medical examiner’s office she heads is stepping up precautions to protect its doctors and technicians.

The most obvious change is the refrigerated truck container that has been moved to the parking lot behind the morgue on Chicago’s Near West Side.

Racks have been set up inside the container so bodies of people believed infected by the highly contagious virus can be examined and photographed, their noses swabbed for tests there, keeping them separate from the main morgue, Arunkumar said Friday as Cook County recorded its second COVID-19-related death.

Arunkumar said she can’t estimate how many coronavirus deaths her office should expect to see.

“We don’t know,” she said. “Those who are in the hospitals, we’re not getting those bodies. But we don’t know how many will be found in homes. I mean, we’re prepared for whatever the increase in caseload may be. We want to be prepared to handle these bodies in a dignified way.”

Later on, that might mean using cold warehouse space off-site rather than the trucks that filled the parking lot during Chicago’s deadly 1995 heat wave.

Since the two coronavirus victims so far died in hospitals, only their medical records will go to the medical examiner — for review and a death certificate.

Others suspected of having COVID-19 are first placed in an extra body bag where they died and the bags washed with bleach, she said. They’ll remain in the bags to have X-rays taken of their heads and chests.

None of the bodies will be released to funeral directors until coronavirus test results come back, she said: “We want to let the funeral homes know when they’re picking up the bodies what the status is.”

Only one doctor and one assistant work on each person. If an autopsy is needed, Arunkumar said it will be conducted in an existing room designed to contain infectious diseases, with ventilation separate from the main facility.

The virus spreads through the air, which, with the living, happens by coughing. But in the autopsy room, tools can kick it up. Since it’s not clear how long the virus can survive on a dead body, rib cages will be opened with hand shears instead of saws, or saws for skulls shielded with wet towels.

All forensic pathologists and techs are fully covered, including hair and shoes, their faces covered by fitted N-95 masks. They wear two pairs of gloves, too, Arunkumar said — all already standard before the virus.

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