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'A sad reality of where we're at': Mobile morgue used for North Idaho COVID-19 victims

Leaders in Shoshone County requested to use the equipment following nearly a dozen deaths tied to coronavirus over a matter of weeks.

SHOSHONE COUNTY, Idaho — For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic started earlier this year, a North Idaho county was recently forced to deploy a mobile refridgerated morgue to store bodies.

Leaders in Shoshone County requested to use the equipment following nearly a dozen deaths tied to coronavirus over a matter of weeks. The rise in deaths had overwhelmed the county's lone funeral home in Kellogg.

"We just ran out of storage," said Shoshone County coroner Rick Smith. "It's just something that has to be done."

The county's morgue, located at Kellogg's Shoshone Funeral Service, has limited capacity to store bodies, according to Smith. The facility can typically keep six to nine bodies at a time, but the COVID-19 pandemic presented the county with what Smith called a "large amount of death ... in a short period of time."

Shoshone County didn't record its first death tied to COVID-19 until July 30. Weeks later, however, the county had tallied 11 deaths.

"Shoshone County has experienced an dramatic increase in positive cases and the associated death rate that came with that; which quickly overloaded the processing capabilities of the Hospital/Coroner/Funeral home," said county emergency manager Dan Martinsen in an email to KREM.

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Smith, Martinsen and other county leaders then began looking for solutions to address the county's need to store additional deceased people. The group eventually connected with a coroners group from Idaho's second health district in Lewiston that was in possesion of a portable morgue.

"They had procured a 'Cold Storage Morgue Trailer' expressly designed for morgue storage purposes and surge events such as this," said Martinsen, noting that the group was able to lend the trailer to Shoshone County via a mutual aid agreement. 

Martinsen eventually drove to Lewiston to pick up the morgue trailer and bring it back to the Silver Valley.

The portable morgue spent two weeks in August in Shoshone County before being returned to Lewiston earlier this week. Martinsen noted that county's surge of cases has since diminished.

"The use of the trailer is at no cost to the county other than incidentals and maintenance; which will be covered by CARES Act reimbursement funds," he said.

According to the Panhandle Health District, the portable morgue's arrival in Shoshone County marked the first time a county has used such equipment in the health district.

"It's not fun. We definitely don't want to see any county needing a cold storage unit to take on the deceased," said Katherine Hoyer, a PHD spokeswoman. "This is just a sad reality of where we're at within this pandemic."

"A special thanks and appreciation should go to Dean Neufeld, PHD-D2 and Alana Anderson, PHD-D1, the D2 Coroners group, Shoshone County Public Works Department and to the Shoshone County Sheriff and deputies who have all helped with the logistics in getting this asset functional for our needs," said Martinen. "Being a small community it is difficult to procure specialized assets such as this; we are very blessed to have such a great Emergency Management family in Idaho and particularly here in the north."