South Florida hospitals have coolers ready as temporary morgues as COVID deaths increase

These precautionary measures are in place as fatalities from COVID-19 increase. Jackson Health System has seen a nearly 500% jump in COVID deaths from June to August.

KENDALL, Fla. – Refrigerated trucks and trailers are in place at many South Florida hospitals as a precautionary measure to be used as temporary morgues, Local 10 News has confirmed.

The coolers are used as needed to expand hospital morgue capacity amid rising COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths — something that was seen in the spring of 2020 in what was then believed to be the coronavirus’ peak.

Current hospitalizations and infections are higher than back then.

On Friday, the state again set a new record for new COVID-19 cases reported to the CDC with 27,584.

A day earlier, data from the CDC showed that Florida had just reported an additional 901 deaths connected to COVID-19. Those deaths didn’t all occur in the past 24 hours and span back over weeks, but they highlight the state’s serious status as a hotbed for the virus.

Jackson Health System, for example, said they reported 35 COVID-19 deaths in June. So far in August, there have been 203 COVID deaths systemwide, a nearly 500% increase.

“While Jackson Health System continues treating an influx of unvaccinated patients with COVID-19, we’re also seeing an upward trend in the number of deaths,” the hospital system said in a statement. “Particularly for adult patients under 65 years old and even including patients in their 30s and 40s. As a precaution to prepare for overcapacity in our morgues, Jackson has refrigerated freight trucks on standby. We continue to urge the community to get vaccinated as we work together to fight this pandemic.”

More than 43,600 Floridians have been lost with COVID-19 since the start of the outbreak, the state and federal data shows.

Florida leads the nation with 16,457 people hospitalized with COVID-19 on Friday, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Florida Hospital Association data shows that the number of COVID admissions is, however, slowly decreasing from its recent peak.

Hospitals continue to tell Local 10 News the vast majority of COVID patients in their care are unvaccinated.

“Before we intubate them, almost their last words are begging us for a vaccine,” said Michelle Benitez, an ICU nurse at Memorial Hospital Pembroke. But at that point “the damage is done.”

At Baptist Health there are now beds in the emergency room lobby, with patient intake now happening outside, under white tents.

And with no vaccine available for children under 12, North Shore Medical center’s Dr. Jose Mark Rub also worries about the uptick in pediatric cases.

“Don’t take it for granted that the kids have a mild case,” he said. “The kids are really scared in the sense that they cannot breathe well, they have weakness, they cannot smell. We even have young children, 2-3 months old, with COVID.”

He continued: “The best way to protect the children under 12 years of age is having all the adults and all the people around them vaccinated.”

To find out where you can get a COVID-19 vaccine in South Florida, click here.

Below are details from South Florida hospital systems on the refrigerated trucks and trailers:

JACKSON HEALTH SYSTEM: A spokesperson for Jackson Health System said they have two refrigerated trailers, one at JMH and the other at Jackson North. The one at Jackson North the spokesperson said is “not currently in use.”

MEMORIAL HEALTHCARE SYSTEM: Memorial has leased one refrigerated truck that is being used “as needed” as an extended morgue to expand hospital morgue capacity. This is part of their pandemic surge plans.

BROWARD HEALTH: “We, like other health systems across the region, have had to use temporary mortuary coolers, an unfortunate result of the loss of life experienced these past months from COVID-19,” the system said in a statement. “We join the families in grieving the loss of their loved ones even as our dedicated caregivers to do everything in their power to care for our patients.”

STEWARD HEALTH CARE SYSTEM: “Steward Health Care’s South Florida hospitals are currently utilizing coolers to help expand morgue capacity as needed at our five hospitals which include Coral Gables Hospital, Florida Medical Center, Hialeah Hospital, North Shore Medical center and Palmetto General Hospital.”

ADVENTHEALTH (CENTRAL FLORIDA): “We have a robust emergency management program, which has allowed us to continue to care for our community during this surge with thorough planning and precautionary measures. With the spike of seriously ill patients in our hospitals, it’s prudent that we prepare for an increase in deaths and are putting resources in place to provide additional capacity if needed.”

About the Authors:

Christina returned to Local 10 in 2019 as a reporter after covering Hurricane Dorian for the station. She is an Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist and previously earned an Emmy Award while at WPLG for her investigative consumer protection segment "Call Christina."