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San Antonio Ready To Use Refrigerated Trucks As Hospital Beds Fill And COVID-19 Death Toll Rises

Bexar County and the City of San Antonio have acquired five refrigerated trailers to hold the bodies of dozens of COVID-19 victims. San Antonio Metro Health officials said all vehicles should be operational by the end of this week as cases of the virus continue to soar.

Local hospital systems are acquiring similar trailers.

Hospitals, morgues and funeral homes have reached capacity at times, with a combination of COVID-19 victims and those who have died of other causes.

The arrival of the trailers is a grim reminder of the grip the virus has on the city and region.

“This is a morbid topic, and it’s not one we enjoy talking about, but it really underscores the severity of COVID-19 in our community,” said Mario Martinez, the assistant director of Metro Health.

Metro Health released photos and videos related to the trucks to the media on Wednesday.

“Each of these trailers can hold between 24 and 36 bodies," Martinez explained. "There is a staffing complement that will help to monitor the temperature to ensure that the temperatures are within the range of 34 to 36 degrees.”

Martinez said the city is working with Bexar County, the Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council (STRAC), area hospitals, the V.A., and other partners to acquire trailers to help with the response effort.

Martinez said the trailers will also have security personnel to assist with the transfer of bodies to funeral homes.

“This is a moment for us to repeat our COVID-19 precautions, wearing the face covering, avoiding large crowds, social distancing, keeping within your social bubble of the immediate household so that we can continue to work together reducing COVID-19 cases in our community,” he said.

Metro Health officials said the virus has sickened more than 21,000 people in the county and killed more than 200 others.

More than 1,200 are hospitalized, and hundreds are in ICUs or on ventilators.

During a COVID-19 briefing earlier this week, Dr. Ken Davis, chief medical officer for CHRISTUS Health, explained starkly that there are few places to keep bodies.

“In the hospital, there are only so many places to put bodies of the loved ones,” he explained, and we’re out of space. Our funeral homes are out of space. So when someone dies we need to quickly turn that bed over.”

Davis also regretted discussing the topic. “It’s a hard thing to talk about,” he admitted. “People’s loved ones are dying.”

“We had 14 die in the hospitals this weekend -- plus, other non COVID patients, of course, are dying, “ he added. “There’s nowhere to put them.”

Dr. Bryan Alsip, the chief medical officer of the University Health System, said refrigerated trucks are part of any large scale emergency planning.

“We have a long standing emergency response plan coordinated through the [regional multi agency coordination] and STRAC for any number of contingencies," he explained, "say a mass casualty event or so forth where those resources might need to be called in."

The Texas Emergency Management Agency dispatches the trucks where requested.

Brian Kirkpatrick can be reached at Brian@tpr.org and on Twitter at @TPRBrian.

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