Santa Barbara County Coroner Prepares for Pandemic

Coroner’s Bureau Ups Its Surge Capacity and Is Conducting Postmortem Testing for COVID-19

In early anticipation of a large spike in COVID-19 related deaths, the Coroner’s Bureau expanded its capacity to include two refrigerated trucks to hold an additional 80 decedents. The projected death count is much lower now due to ongoing social distancing. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

While Santa Barbara County’s hospitals and Public Health Department have continued preparing for a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, the Coroner’s Bureau has had to do the same in anticipation of a surge in deaths.

Normally, the county Coroner’s Bureau can hold 12 decedents at one time in the Santa Barbara location and 10 in the Santa Maria location. In the case of mass-fatality disasters, such as last September’s Conception boat fire and 2018’s 1/9 Debris Flow in Montecito, the two facilities have a surge capacity of about 50.

Early modeling from the Public Health Department, that projected no flattening of the curve through social distancing, projected the death count could rise as high as 1,600 people at the peak of the surge, prompting the Coroner’s Bureau to prepare for an unprecedented expansion. Counties throughout the state could endure similar hits, the agencies were told, so they needed to be prepared should Santa Barbara County be faced with a surge in deaths and no neighboring counties’ coroner’s bureaus were available for assistance.

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“We’ve already had a mass-fatality plan in place before the pandemic that calls on everyone [working for the county] to be involved in it,” said Lt. Erik Raney, public information officer for the Sheriff’s Office/Coroner’s Bureau.

The plan involves deploying funeral homes and hospital morgues throughout the county, which, if collectively used to their surge capacity, can hold up to 205 additional decedents. With the two county coroner’s facilities, the mass fatality plan allows for about 255 total decedents to be held by the Coroner’s Bureau.

But they were told 255 wasn’t enough.

The county acquired two refrigerated coolers to store additional decedents, one conex-style and one tractor-trailer-style truck similar to the ones being used outside New York City hospitals. Each can hold 40 decedents; the latter was donated to the county by Hub City Terminals out of Illinois. The two units are located at the Santa Barbara facility and allow for a maximum capacity of 335 for the county.

As Santa Barbarans have continued to comply with the stay-at-home order and more accurate models have developed, the initial predicted death count of 1,600 has decreased significantly. On Tuesday, Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso shared a University of Washington model that projects 57 total deaths county-wide by August. Despite the drop in predicted deaths, the Coroner’s Bureau has still had to change its operations considerably.

“Right now we’re testing every decedent that comes in,” Raney said. “Public Health and the Coroner’s Bureau are tracking every death in the county and testing them [for COVID-19], unless they died of something more apparent like an overdose or a car accident.”

Raney explained that someone diagnosed with COVID-19 and under the care of a physician within 20 days of dying would not be investigated by the Coroner’s Bureau. However, someone who had died of seemingly more natural causes — with or without reported COVID symptoms — and hadn’t seen a doctor within 20 days of dying would be tested for the virus during the postmortem, Raney said. The county has so far reported two COVID-19-caused deaths.

The additional cooler units and postmortem coronavirus testing aren’t the only pandemic-fueled modifications to the bureau.

“We do additional deep cleaning twice a week on top of regular cleaning,” Raney said. “When any cases roll in that are suspected to be COVID-related, investigators put on the full PPE [personal protective equipment] gear that we typically only use for autopsies.” 

The bureau is led by one sergeant who oversees four coroner’s investigators and one full-time pathologist. Because Santa Barbarans have mostly complied with the state and local mandates, Raney said that the Coroner’s Bureau will “probably be able to handle it with our current staff.” 

“We will take it day by day and see if we have the work to need more investigators,” Raney said. “All deputy sheriffs on the street can be investigators if it came to it.”

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