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St. Louis County’s $1.7M COVID-19 morgue has held few bodies, prompting criticism that it miscalculated the need

"I think they overestimated the problem, and of course overestimated the solution," said Councilman Mark Harder

ST. LOUIS — A massive COVID-19 morgue built out by St. Louis County has held a tiny fraction of the bodies its capacity allows, prompting questions from at least one public official about whether alternatives should have been pursued.

But the county's acting health director, Spring Schmidt, said the administration of County Executive Sam Page used the best data when deciding how to handle a possible influx of bodies because of the pandemic.

"I don't have any regrets for the fact that mortality isn't higher or that we didn't need the additional capacity," Schmidt said. "I would have had significant regrets if any part of this system failed and it resulted in something that was uncomfortable for family members, was disrespectful to the deceased or did not care for the level of potential for infection transmission."

The administration in April revealed that it was pursuing construction of a 29,000-square-foot temporary morgue in an Earth City warehouse owned by UPS. It told the press that it would have capacity for 1,300 bodies. It has held 56 bodies total, and none were being held there as of Monday morning. Most have come from hospitals, which can lack space for bodies in some circumstances, Schmidt said.

Build out of the facility cost nearly $1.7 million, the county said, and it carries additional monthly rental costs of $114,204. The government hopes the expenses are reimbursable through its $173 million allotment of federal CARES Act relief money.

RELATED: How much did St. Louis County's COVID-19 morgue cost?

"This whole thing has been miscalculation on top of miscalculation," said Councilman Mark Harder.

Harder said he was surprised lawmakers weren't consulted about the creation of the facility. He said he would have advocated for refrigerated trailers or other less costly solutions — even though the county Medical Examiner's Office has for years faced problems over the amount of capacity it has to store bodies.

"I think they overestimated the problem, and of course overestimated the solution," Harder said.

As of Monday, 466 people have died of COVID-19 in St. Louis County. But back in April, there was fear that the number would be much higher. Schmidt said other alternatives to the Earth City morgue, including the trailers, were weighed as part of plans made with the county's Emergency Operations Center and East-West Gateway Council of Governments. 

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

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