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Funeral workers concerned about not getting enough PPE during COVID-19 pandemic

It took a global pandemic for people who are comfortable behind the scenes to bring attention to themselves. They need PPE to handle somebody's loved one.

HOUSTON — They are not the people we think or talk about until that moment when someone we love is gone. They’re typically in the background, making sure families dealing with loss have what they need.

“Anyone who wants to help families the way we help families, it's definitely a calling. It's a ministry, if you will,” said Gene Allen, president of the Texas Funeral Directors Association. “Funeral directors are a lot like first responders. I mean, we're on the front lines.”

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It took a global pandemic for people who are comfortable behind the scenes to bring attention to themselves. They need personal protective equipment to handle somebody’s loved one. Deathcare workers use PPEs every day, three funeral workers told KHOU 11, and the PPEs need to be restocked. That is where some funeral homes are running into a problem, according to Allen.

“The vendors that we typically deal with on a daily basis, they're out, totally out,” Allen said. “And no signs of when they may get any from their suppliers, from the manufacturers. We're basically left at the hands of the state government and federal government as they dole it out. And right now, we're not seeing a whole lot of that being distributed.”

“If we're not protected, we don't have proper PPE, we become the potential carrier of the virus. It's a big concern,” Allen said.

Some funeral homes started rationing PPEs to make what they have last longer.

“Oftentimes funeral homes are having to call day by day to see what protective gear is available, what can be shipped and what can be provided,” said Clay Dippel, licensed funeral director and embalmer working at Bradshaw-Carter Memorial & Funeral Services in Houston. Dippel used to work for KHOU 11 as a producer.

“Generally, when we perform a cremation, there would be two staff members present and able to handle the remains to confirm identity to ensure that every part of the process that's done with dignity and respect,” Dippel said. “And in normal circumstances, each member of our staff would have a pair of gloves on. We've noticed that with the high demand for these protective gloves and face shields and masks that it made sense for us to instead of having both of us glove up to handle this particular set of human remains, that we would split up. So, for example, one of us might wear the gloves and the other would be there to double check and witness everything.

“We are in the business of helping people heal. We are also in the business of making sure that everyone we work with is safe and well cared for,” Dippel said.

On March 23, Allen, on behalf of the Texas Funeral Directors Association members and the 6,000 state deathcare professionals, wrote a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott, asking deathcare workers to be included in any state, local or mandatory orders, as essential critical infrastructure workers, that would ensure their access to PPEs and vaccines, among other things.

Governor of TexasPO Box 12428Austin, TX 78711-2428 Re: Time-sensitive request to use emergency powers to identify deathcare workers amongstessential critical infrastructure workers The Texas Funeral Directors Association has been working closely with the National FuneralDirectors Association to educate funeral professionals in the state of Texas about their critical rolein responding to the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Allen said he’s not heard back from the governor. 

“It's a little mind boggling,” Allen said. “I just don't think that it's been thought out thoroughly and given the full attention that it needs to be given in regards to our safety and the danger that we would ultimately pose to the general public as well if we're infected.”

The Texas Division of Emergency Management is handling the PPE distribution. In an email, a spokesperson told KHOU 11 the Department of Homeland Security designated deathcare workers as “essential critical infrastructure workforce.” The memorandum is dated March 28. Gov. Abbott included that in his executive order from March 31.

In an email, Texas DEM said it was distributing PPEs to Regional Advisory Councils across the state.

“The RACs are determining the distribution of PPE at the local level,” said Seth Christensen, chief of media and communications for TDEM.

The Texas Health and Human Services website lists 22 RACs in the state. They are “administrative bodies responsible for trauma system oversight,” within certain Texas areas. Council members are generally local professionals and citizens interested in improving and organizing trauma care. Each is organized differently by design.

Glenn Bower, executive director of the Texas Funeral Service Commission, which licenses the business and enforces rules, told KHOU 11 that not every Regional Advisory Council appears to be clear about the funeral home’s “essential” designation.

“What I’ve been running across is several of the regional contacts have not been able to figure out how the funeral homes are listed as essential or exactly the type of PPEs that are necessary to do the work they need to do,” Bower said. “This is so different than anything else we’ve experienced, getting the right terminology to the right people has been kind of challenging.”

Bower said he’s received about a dozen emails from licensed funeral homes saying they are short on the personal protective equipment and that they’ve not been able to convince their regional contact to be forthcoming with where to get supplies.

“I've reached out to all 22 regions and said explain very much in detail what we need in order to get through this crisis that the regions need to support the funeral homes,” Bower said.

From: Glenn Bower 

Date: Fri, Apr 10, 2020 at 7:57 PM

Subject: PPE Shortage

Good Evening RAC contacts, 

My name is Glenn Bower and I am the Executive Director of the Texas Funeral Service Commission.  Many funeral homes are trying to provide safe funeral practices to their client families and their employees.  With the increased COVID-19 identified cases, the funeral directors throughout the state are using their PPE supplies and they are not able to get any type of replacement orders from their usual suppliers.  President Trump and Governor Abbott have identified funeral directors as essential businesses so they should be able to order replacement PPEs.  It is my understanding that funeral directors would be a Priority 3, but many of them are trying to order PPE replacements but they are not listed as an essential entity and they are confused.  If a funeral home contacts you, could you please assist them in ordering their replacement PPEs so they can continue serving their grieving families.  If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me.

Kindly,

-- 

Glenn A. Bower, CFSP 

Executive Director

Texas Funeral Service Commission

333 Guadalupe Street, Ste 2-110

Austin, TX 78701

“I've been trying to use my resources and my position here in the agency to try to maneuver or encourage or educate the state resource management to get the necessary supplies to my constituents,” Bower added. “Unfortunately, funeral homes are not typically included in a top priority of essential businesses. This pandemic is actually rewriting how we address emergency procedures and essential businesses to include funeral homes and getting the necessary equipment.”

Glenn said funeral homes are considered by Gov. Abbott and President Donald Trump as essential businesses.

“Which means they should be able to get the necessary PPEs, meaning the gloves, face masks, the gowns, the boots, the head covers all of the necessary equipment in order to safely remove a human remains and to prepare them for disposition,” Bower said.

“Mortuary workers are able to make and should make their PPE needs known through that (RAC) channel,” Christensen wrote.

 “Funeral directors by nature don't complain,” Bower added. “They will call other funeral homes to borrow or barter with their funeral homes regarding sharing of supplies and resources. Most funeral directors are so much involved with helping the families that it's not in the forefront of their mind to call the regional advisory council contact and say, ‘by the way, I'm out of PPEs or I’m getting low on those.’ So that's why I feel in this position as executive director I can be the largest advocate and cheerleader for my funeral directors throughout the state.”

Coronavirus symptoms

The symptoms of coronavirus can be similar to the flu or a bad cold. Symptoms include a fever, cough and shortness of breath, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Some patients also have nausea, body aches, headaches and stomach issues. Losing your sense of taste and/or smell can also be an early warning sign.

Most healthy people will have mild symptoms. A study of more than 72,000 patients by the Centers for Disease Control in China showed 80 percent of the cases there were mild.

But infections can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death, according to the World Health Organization. Older people with underlying health conditions are most at risk for becoming seriously ill. However, U.S. experts are seeing a significant number of younger people being hospitalized, including some in ICU.

The CDC believes symptoms may appear anywhere from two to 14 days after being exposed.

Human coronaviruses are usually spread through...

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Help stop the spread of coronavirus

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  • Cover your cough or sneeze with your arm, not your hand.
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  • Follow social distancing

Lower your risk

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
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