MIAMI -- As the coronavirus threatens to overwhelm Florida's medical system for the living, the outbreak could also affect the doctors who deal in death.
The Miami-Dade Medical Examiner's Office may not wind up doing many autopsies on the inevitable COVID-19 deaths, but it nevertheless plays a vital role, issuing death certificates for those who succumb to diseases threatening the public's health.
So forensic pathologists must work closely with doctors at hospitals, all while trying to stay healthy themselves to still be able to conduct autopsies on people who die in other ways -- such as car accidents, shootings and suicides. Those autopsies are continuing as normal, while experts say the risk of a pathologist catching COVID-19 during the procedures is low because the doctors normally wear masks, gloves and gowns anyway.
There's another reason the Medical Examiner's office may be crucial: if deaths in Florida spike from the highly contagious respiratory disease. When people die outside of a hospice or hospital, the ME's office typically takes charge of the body.
"We want to make sure we have adequate room in our coolers to accommodate bodies," said Dr. Emma Lew, Miami-Dade's chief medical examiner.
Based on what has happened in Europe, the United States could see a deluge of deaths.
In Spain, the number of dead has been so overwhelming that an ice-skating rink has been turned into a temporary morgue to help store the bodies. Hospital morgues in Italy have run out space, leading to lines of coffins at graveyards as corpses await cremation. Britain is setting up temporary morgues to handle the expected corpses.
COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, has been overwhelming in states such as Washington and New York, the latter now considered the U.S. epicenter of the outbreak.
The state of New York, as of Tuesday morning, had tallied 25,665 cases -- and 157 deaths. In New York, the bodies of the victims, so far, are being stored in hospital facilities before being turned over the funeral homes.
Still, New York City's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, the largest in the country, has plans in place for mass deaths, which include expanding morgue and autopsy space via collapsible tents. That's what happened after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.