ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- As COVID-19 took hold in the St. Louis region, local officials hoped for the best but planned for the worst.
In April, St. Louis County announced the build-out of a temporary morgue in Earth City, designed to be a dignified transfer center to accommodate those who had passed away around the region. The plan was to have it hold up to 1,300 bodies if needed.
The space was donated, but the cost to build it out was close to $2 million.
County Councilmember Tim Fitch said he was surprised by the surge morgue’s construction, adding he found out about it through media reports.
“There was no conversation with any of the councilmembers that I am aware of,” he said.
Fitch said he understands concerns that the permanent morgues, like the medical examiner's office, may have become overwhelmed, but as a former police chief, he noted previous emergency plans had provided an option: County-owned ice rinks.
They are all closed. All the recreational complexes are closed, [so] we could have done that,” he said. “Or we have other options. Those ice rinks were an option we planned to use, so I don't know why we did not.”
Another option would be utilizing funeral homes throughout the region.
Donald Otto, a member of the Missouri Funeral Directors and Embalmers Association said their organization wasn't consulted before the morgue was built, even though they could have fulfilled the need.
St. Louis City also built out a temporary morgue, consisting of refrigerated trucks inside covered by tents in a parking lot, to the tune of $28,000. They never had to use it.
Right now , the morgue in St. Louis County is empty. To date, just 56 bodies were stored there before moving on to final resting places.
Fitch points to the math, which comes out to 36,000 taxpayer dollars per body.
“I don't believe that there was a need to spend this kind of money for this kind of purpose,” he said.
Spring Schmidt, St. Louis County’s acting director of health, said refrigerated trucks outside hospitals had sparked outrage across the country, and the county wanted to act with concern for the potential loss of life.
“We knew testing wasn't adequate enough and we had seen testing all over the states and across the world who had enormously high rates of death,” she explained.
Schmidt said the county considered alternatives, but experts said ice rinks were not considered good options.
“Everything we planned, every conversation we had, I think led us to this path,” she said. “We had such heartfelt conversations of our fears and concerns of where we could be.”
Schmidt said at the time, less was known about the virus or how effective social distancing measures would be, so they could only guess at the needed capacity.
With deaths nearing 500 in St. Louis County alone, Schmidt maintains that the center served its purpose.
“They went through that center with every bit of care we could exercise at that time and so I don't regret it,” she said.
Fitch said it's likely time to dismantle the facility, but Schmidt said it may be too early to do so.
“We are not through this yet. We are still in an epidemic and a crisis,” she said.
The costs for the temporary morgue will be shared between the six counties, including St. Louis City, that utilized it. St. Louis County will bear more than 60% of the cost, however.
Officials say they will seek reimbursement of the funds from a variety of sources.
Already, they have closed down half of the facility and reduced staffing. Much of the equipment installed there, can be utilized elsewhere or during other disasters.