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Winn. Co. purchases refrigerated trailer to use if morgue fills up due to rise in COVID deaths

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ROCKFORD (WREX) — COVID-19 deaths are on the rise, and local and state health officials are planning for a surge in deaths.

On Monday, we first told you about the refrigerated trailer coming to Winnebago County.

As winter approaches, Winnebago County leaders worry the morgue could run out of room for bodies.

"We started to get calls from one of the hospitals that they really needed our help because they were having more and more individuals pass away from COVID," Winnebago County Coroner Bill Hintz explained to county board members at a Thursday night meeting of the Public Safety Committee.

That meeting lasted 40 minutes and Hintz took a variety of questions from board members. Some of the most relevant questions were based on numbers and logistics.

For example, the county morgue can hold up to 64 people, but Hintz explained that depends on a person's size. A heavier person may take up two spaces.

Additionally, COVID deaths are kept separate from other deaths, in a completely separate cooler in fact, leaving even less room.

The purchase of a refrigerated trailer presented a solution to the problem.

Board member Keith McDonald asked Hintz, with the trailer, what the new capacity is.

Hintz replied, "With the shelving in there, I've got room to hold between 30 to 40 more."

So, $30,000 later, that truck sits in a warehouse off the 500 block of Green Street, currently unplugged and empty. Hintz said, if need be, that warehouse is big enough to hold a second trailer.

It's worth noting that prior to the meeting, board members believed this to be the consideration for the purchase or rental of the unit. Most, including Public Safety Chairman Aaron Booker, had not been informed the county, which has had budget issues in the past, had already purchased the trailer.

But Hintz explained there wasn't much of a choice. Companies wouldn't accept a lease, only a purchase. It was also necessary as his morgue was reaching capacity just days earlier.

Hintz also described to the board the uptick in deaths he saw between late-October and through most of November.

And Hintz, who says he has daily communications with local hospitals and the Winnebago County Health Department, issued a warning.

"We do believe that we are going to peak again when it comes to fatalities, the morgue — probably seven to ten days, maybe even sooner after Thanksgiving," Hintz said. "And they do believe there's possibly another peak after Christmas."

Prior to Hintz's presentation at Thursday night's board meeting, I spoke to him about the number of COVID deaths in his morgue at that moment on Thursday afternoon.

"We just got rid of our last one today," Hintz said of the COVID bodies.

I then asked Hintz how many total bodies were in the morgue as of that moment, but he couldn't give a number. Yet, he did say the numbers have gone down, even since he and I had spoken on Monday.

He said, though things were quiet, they can quickly change.

"It's all just trying to make the best educated guesses to take care of everybody in this community," Hintz explained.

So, from hospice to homicides to COVID-19, the refrigerated trailer presents a temporary solution to hopefully a temporary problem.

As for the $30,000 the county paid for the trailer, because we're under an emergency order, it will be reimbursed, 75 percent will come from FEMA and 25 percent will come from the CARES Act.

And after Hintz's office is done using it, it will be stored with the highway department.

Richard Bodee

Richard Bodee is a reporter at WREX. He joined the 13 WREX team in June 2019 after graduating from DePaul University with a Master’s degree in broadcast journalism.

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