With projections showing that as many as 4,700 residents statewide may die because of COVID-19, funeral homes across Florida are adapting their services to be ready for the increased need.
They are also suffering from a lack of personal protection equipment essential for their systems.
Social distancing advisories from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and mandates in executive orders signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis have limited the number of gathered mourners.
The National Funeral Directors Association, based in Wisconsin, has issued guidelines stating that the remains of people who died of confirmed or suspected COVID-19 can be embalmed, “so long as the funeral professional follows proper safety protocols.”
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has identified death care industry workers and services, including funeral homes and crematoriums, as an essential part of the nation’s COVID-19 response. However, funeral directors say their employees are increasingly at risk.
The biggest problem is the personal protection equipment they need at work – especially masks and surgical gloves and gowns – are the same as those going wanting in hospitals.
“We’re trying to get ahead of the curve – and get the needed equipment right now for what they’re going to be needing in the next couple of weeks,” said Michele Hood, associate executive director of Independent Funeral Directors of Florida.
As of Tuesday, daily deaths related to COVID-19 will peak in Florida at 128 on May 6, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.
Hood said funeral workers typically use N95 masks for embalming. She said her association is looking into making handmade masks with material from N99 masks, which filter 4% higher, because they have been unable to secure any of the preferred type.
The National Funeral Directors Association is telling its membership that the Strategic National Stockpile is sending existing and new personal protective equipment to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA will then distribute it to each state’s emergency operations center.
A lot of funeral workers have had to improvise using raincoats and cleaning gloves instead, said Randy Anderson, spokesperson for the national association.
“You got to do what you got to do to protect yourself,” Anderson said. “I had a funeral director call me earlier this week and say, ‘Would you embalm without an N95 mask?’ – and I said, ‘Personally, I would not.’”
Hood said she knows of no Florida funeral home having obtained any new protective wear.
Funeral directors instead are trying to go through the open market for their personal protective equipment, but they have found that their suppliers are sold out.
Vincent Brown, owner of Grace Funeral Home in Miami, said his vendors cannot sell protective equipment to him, because it is prioritized for health care workers and marked for disaster relief.
“We’re being exposed to the virus just like first responders, just like doctors, just like healthcare professionals,” Brown said. “We’re no different.”
Liz Frenier, owner of Barbara Falowski Funeral and Cremation Services in Fort Lauderdale, said she hopes South Florida does not face the same coronavirus death toll as New York. No matter what, though, Frenier wants to make sure her employees can perform their jobs the right way.
“We just have to all sit together and just follow the rules,” Frenier said. “Not just for the families’ safety, but for our safety as well.”
Rick Williams, director at Williams Thomas Funeral Homes in Gainesville, said his company has been able to maintain its supplies of cleaning and protection equipment.
“But it is a concern if we just don’t know how long this is going to last,” Williams said, referring to the global pandemic at large. “The longer this goes, the more challenging it becomes.”
With even gravesite burials and memorial services limited to 10 people or less, many funeral homes are looking into streaming options for family members unable to travel or attend.
“It’s hard to make this adjustment, but it seems as though families are trying just as hard as we are,” said Williams, who noted that he had cameras installed to stream services more effectively.
Charles Chestnut, funeral director at Chestnut Funeral Home in Gainesville and an Alachua County commissioner, also said his more customers have requested their services to be live streamed. He said he plans to find someone to help implement streaming in his facility.
“Now, we’re not that high tech yet,” Chestnut said. “But we’re adjusting.”
Brad Zahn, owner of Tillman Funeral Home and Crematory in West Palm Beach, said a lot of clients are opting for cremations, with plans for a memorial service once the pandemic is over.
“It’s hard enough when folks have a death in the family – and now this on top of it,” Zahn said. “But an overwhelming amount of families have been understanding, and have been willing to do what’s necessary to keep everybody safe.”