To date, Australia has largely avoided mass COVID-19 fatalities, like those seen in Italy, the UK or the US. (AP: Alessandra Tarantino)
Flat-pack coffins would be stockpiled and shipping container freezers used for storage in a “central location”, under a plan to manage a “mass casualty” event caused by coronavirus in South Australia.
- Authorities stressed that efforts to “slow the spread” mean the plan is unlikely to be needed
- It outlines the necessary public health measures in the event of “mass fatalities”
- They include requirements for funeral homes, cemeteries and temporary morgues
The SA Health plan was published today, but health authorities have stressed it has not been enacted.
The plan has been under review for several weeks given the high number of fatalities recorded elsewhere, in countries including Italy, the UK and the US.
But SA Health’s Disaster Preparedness and Resilience Branch director Paul McGowan said the possibility of such measures being needed in South Australia was becoming increasingly unlikely.
South Australia has recorded two new cases of COVID-19 in the past 24 hours but no cases in the previous three days, while more than 80 per cent of all known cases are now considered recovered.
Four people have died from the disease in the state.
“This plan provides an outline of the South Australian Government’s response should mass fatalities occur during a viral respiratory disease pandemic,” Mr McGowan said.
“While it’s vital to be prepared, at this stage we don’t expect we will need to enact this plan, as South Australia is in a good position following the great work of the community to slow the spread of COVID-19.”
Documents show plans for mass fatality event
The plan details the steps necessary to manage large numbers of deaths, as well as requirements for funeral homes, cemeteries, temporary morgue facilities and hospital storage capacity.
“It is recommended that the funeral industry stockpile ‘flat-set’ coffins to ensure that funerals and cremations can continue during a viral respiratory disease pandemic without disruption from a lack of coffins,” the plan states.
It lists the refrigeration and freezer capacity of each hospital’s mortuary division, and notes that “portable shipping containers with freezing functions” may be useful.
It also outlines hygiene risks for funeral directors, mortuary staff and family members.
“Family viewing of the deceased should be allowed to take place in a funeral director’s mortuary facility and standard precautions should be observed,” the plan states.
“Family members should not kiss or touch the deceased to minimise the risk of transmission [and] if a family member does touch the body, they should wash their hands with soap and water immediately afterwards or use an alcohol-based hand rub.”
The SA Health plan lists the Adelaide Cemeteries Authority-owned Smithfield Memorial Park as a site that could be used if extra burial capacity was ever needed.
“The logical option in metropolitan Adelaide is to utilise the existing 13 hectares of undeveloped burial land at Smithfield Memorial Park,” it states.
In New York, mass graves have been dug on Hart Island to bury coronavirus victims. (Reuters: Lucas Jackson)
While requests for autopsies would be limited under a “mass casualty” event, health staff would have to ensure the pandemic was not being used to conceal suspicious or unexplained deaths.
“If there is doubt about the cause of death then a full post-mortem procedure will be directed,” the plan states.
“This is particularly important, because during the pandemic increase in fatalities, this may obscure possible murders in homes, so [for] suspected suspicious deaths, suicides or unusual circumstances … a full post-mortem will be required by the coroner.”
Respect for cultural sensitivities is highlighted in the plan, as is the importance of clear communication and reassurance for family members of deceased people.
The “Management of the Deceased in a Pandemic Sub-Plan” is one element of the State Government’s broader “SA Health Viral Respiratory Disease Pandemic Response Plan”, published last month.
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