Phoenix mayor: Abrazo hospitals have ‘run out of morgue beds’

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Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego told a national TV news broadcast that Maricopa County has requested refrigerated trucks because a hospital system ran out of morgue space for people who died from COVID-19 complications, but the county and hospital group said they’ve done so as part of standard emergency planning, not because they’ve already hit capacity.

In an appearance on MSNBC Friday morning, Gallego said Abrazo Health, which operates seven hospitals across the metro Phoenix area, “has run out of morgue beds.”

“Maricopa County […] just announced that they are going to be getting refrigerated trucks because the Abrazo Health care system has run out of morgue beds,” Gallego said. 

But Abrazo Health spokesman Keith Jones said in a statement that the hospital system has not run out of morgue space. It has, however, requested “refrigerated storage” as part of the state urging hospital systems to enact “crisis care” standards

“Abrazo hospitals currently have adequate morgue space,” Jones said. “Abrazo has taken a proactive approach by ordering refrigerated storage in the event it may be needed during a surge of COVID patients. At this point it is not needed.”  

Maricopa County spokeswoman Lisa M Blyler said morgue space at the Office of the Medical Examiner is at about 96% capacity.

“Our planners at Unified Command are moving toward acquiring coolers and staffing because OME is currently near capacity for body storage,” Blyler said. “This is a situation that occurs almost every summer and is further complicated by the current pandemic.” 

She said the normal capacity at the Office of the Medical Examiner is for 150 deceased people, but can expand “to about 200 cases and will do so if needed” while it secures more bed capacity.

“In the meantime, Public Health has been working with health care partners throughout this pandemic. Just as they have been advising these partners to ramp up bed capacity, they have also been advising them to increase morgue capacity as needed,” Blyler said. “This is standard practice in emergency planning.”

In the past 10 days, COVID-19 deaths in Maricopa County increased by 230, according to the county website. 

The county Office of the Medical Examiner doesn’t handle all COVID-19 deaths, she said. The agency investigates only “traumatic, non-natural, or unexplained deaths,” according to its website.

Gallego also criticized Gov. Doug Ducey for restricting what local governments could do to combat COVID-19, a decision he partially reversed in June when he allowed cities to require masks and face coverings in public. 

“It is very scary out here. I wish we had given mayors the authority to act earlier,” she said.

Gallego’s office didn’t respond  to requests for comment. 

As of July 10, COVID-19 had killed 1,009 people in Maricopa County, according to the county Public Health Department website

About 51% percent of those deaths have been people who lived in long-term care facilities, which include group homes, and skilled nursing, assisted living, rehabilitation, and hospice facilities. 

But county figures show the COVID-19 illness is now killing more people outside of these congregate living facilities: Two weeks ago, 60% of the total coronavirus deaths in Maricopa County were residents of long-term care facilities.  

In Arizona, 2,082 people have died due to COVID-19, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.

As Arizona has spent the past six weeks becoming one of the national hotspots for COVID-19, the request for refrigerated trucks and space to store bodies is a milestone of sorts. In April, when New York experienced a surge in COVID-19 deaths, refrigerated trucks and trailers were used as temporary morgues

Blyler, the Maricopa County spokeswoman, said a “statewide Fatality Management Task Force” is monitoring the increasing COVID-19 deaths.

Patrick Ptak, a Ducey spokesman, didn’t immediately respond to inquiries on when the fatality task force was convened, who serves on it and what its functions are.

***UPDATED: This story was updated to include comments from Abrazo Health and Maricopa County.

Laura Gómez
Reporter Laura Gómez Rodriguez covers state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror. She worked for The Arizona Republic and La Voz Arizona for four years, covering city government, economic development, immigration, politics and trade. In 2017, Laura traveled the length of the U.S.-Mexico border for “The Wall,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning project produced by The Arizona Republic and USA Today Network. She was named Best Investigative Reporter by Phoenix Magazine in its 2018 newspaper category and has been honored by the Arizona Press Club for Spanish-language news and feature reporting. She is a native of Bogotá, Colombia and lived in Puerto Rico and Boston before moving to Phoenix in 2014. Catch her researching travel deals, feasting on mariscos or playing soccer.