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Temporary morgue built in Earth City in preparedness for COVID-19 deaths

"We have no way of anticipating what the number will actually be, if any, but we're prepared"

EARTH CITY, Mo. — All of the members of the media had to first put on facial masks, helmets and use hand sanitizer before they toured the Earth City warehouse that's now been converted into a temporary morgue as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

"Please, do not try to talk to the construction workers because that will not be safe for them or you," Sergeant Ben Granda with the St. Louis County Police Department told more than a dozen reporters and photographers.

It was the media's first opportunity to see inside the 29,000 square feet building that's on private property on Rider Trail North Drive.

"We have eight rooms. We also have a drive-up access that we can receive patients," said Deanna Venker, director of transportation and public works with St. Louis County.

Officials said area morgues, hospitals and funeral homes are filling up fast.

In light of the coronavirus pandemic, the morgue, that usually would've taken about a year to build, was completed fairly quickly.

"It's really amazing. It is a very dignified, well-trained and well executed project which I haven't seen hardly any else in the United States like this task force has done in a week and a half," said Bob Lonning, founder, president and CEO of Alternative Funeral Services, Incorporated.

The temporary morgue is also called a "Dignified Transfer Center."

"The people who come here are primarily people dying from natural causes who have died in hospitals. If there's not a funeral home or a family to send a body to a funeral home then it could come here because there is no place else to accommodate," said Dr. Mary Case, St. Louis County chief medical examiner.

"We have 39 chaplains from nine different religious denominations were assisting us in this effort," added Rabbi Mark Shook.

For the last 10 years, Shook has served as the chaplain coordinator for St. Louis County Police, chaplain of the St. Louis Division, FBI and chaplain of the Creve Coeur Police Department.

The chaplains will put in eight-hour shifts at the temporary morgue, comforting and praying with families who have lost their loved ones.

When they arrived at the morgue, the deceased will be in a bag, on a gurney and rolled into a small room.

"Families will be able to see the gurney and their loved one through a glass window. Some of these people would have died without being able to see their loved one's passing. It's just our worst nightmare and so what we're trying to do is make sure that they have a sense of closure," Shook said.

The temporary morgue can hold up to 1,300 bodies.

Construction crews will work throughout the weekend, putting finishing touches on the building.

It may open as early as next week.

"It's not a question of if the morgue will be used, but when," said Lonning.

"We have no way of anticipating what the number will actually be, if any, but we're prepared," said Dr. Case.

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