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Texas readies morgue trucks in preparation for virus death surge

Susan Warren, Rachel Adams-Heard and Daniel Flatley, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

Along the Texas coast outside Corpus Christi, Nueces County Judge Barbara Canales surveyed the sandy Gulf of Mexico beaches packed with swimmers and sunbathers, just the way they are every summer. Then she went back to her office to order another morgue truck.

Officials across Texas are rushing to mobilize overflow mortuary space as communities brace for a surge in coronavirus deaths following Fourth of July festivities. Already, July has had a succession of record-setting days in terms of new cases, deaths and the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 as the pandemic takes hold in the state.

"Why won't people see what's happening?" Canales said of vacationers thronging the beaches. "It's nothing but summer fun. They can't see the stress and strain that our community is under. The danger isn't real to them."

July's heat and sun aren't providing the respite many had hoped for when the pandemic arrived in the U.S. in the cooler, cloudier days of early spring. Then, it created pile-ups of bodies in New York City that required ranks of mortuary trailers. Now, while Northeastern states that were hit hard early are curbing the virus, the South and Southwest are contending with explosive outbreaks after relaxing controls. Renewed efforts such as mask mandates haven't yet made a dent.

This week, Texas continued to set records with 10,745 new cases reported Tuesday and more than 10,569 hospitalized with the virus. Deaths so far total nearly 3,500, contributing to a national tally of 138,000 so far.

For months, a bad day in the state was anything over 30 deaths. But in the past week, they jumped to triple digits and Gov. Greg Abbott -- who prevented cities and counties from moving aggressively to counter the disease -- is warning the worst is yet to come.

 

U.S. Army medics are being deployed to two counties along the Texas-Mexico border to assist hospitals overrun with new virus cases. And hospitals and local governments are requesting refrigerated trucks and trailers outfitted with racks designed for storing the dead. Some are turning to private companies.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has dispatched 22 morgue trucks to Texas, said Deputy Press Secretary Janet Montesi. None have been requested by Florida or Arizona, where similar outbreaks are underway.

The first eight units arrived in Texas in April. Nobody needed them then, so they stayed parked, one at the Nueces County fairgrounds. Canales, the top elected executive official, briefly considered charging the state rent for storing it.

For three months, only three people in the county of about 365,000 died of COVID-19. "Then, last week, an onslaught," she said. As of Tuesday, 58 people had died. Adding to the strain: Nueces's morgue facilities are used by 17 other counties.

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