Crow Wing County purchased a semitrailer to possibly use as a morgue should the number of the deaths related to COVID-19 exceed local funeral homes’ capacity to handle the dead.

The precaution was based on a COVID-19 model developed last month by a team at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health that predicted between 50,000 and 55,000 deaths statewide with Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order to reduce the spread of the disease.

“We routinely plan for all hazards we might experience,” Crow Wing County Administrator Tim Houle said Wednesday of the preliminary figures.

A more recent University of Washington projection model has forecast about 60,000 deaths by Aug. 4 in the country; the University of Washington model does not forecast what could happen beyond that date whereas the Minnesota model goes out for at least a year.

County officials contacted all of the county’s funeral directors about what they would need in the event of such a high mortality rate. The sale of the semitrailer to the county for $15,500 was finalized at the end of March and facilitated through TCBX Trucking of Brainerd.

“Crow Wing County has no morgue capacity. The capacity our community can handle is what can be stored at area funeral homes, which is, of course, based on historical death rates,” Houle said.

The discussions with the funeral directors took place at the end of March, when the county initiated the semitrailer purchase, according to Houle.

“The death rate at that time was being based on what Italy was experiencing. What I was seeing at that time were wildly fluctuating estimates that ranged from 800 deaths to as high as 2,000 for a population our size,” Houle said.

Crow Wing County Public Health Supervisor Michelle Moritz talked to Houle about those preliminary figures. Walz’s stay-at-home order for Minnesotans began March 27 and was supposed to end April 10, but was extended to May 4.

“I remember asking Michelle Moritz how they were calculating the death rate in Italy at 3-4% as, when I did the math for a population their size, it did not add up to 3-4% of their total population, but that’s what we were hearing,” Houle said. “At that time, the governor was predicting up to 75,000 deaths for Minnesota — not 50,000, which is the current upper limit estimate as I understand it — which would’ve meant over 850 for Crow Wing County. The numbers at that time were fluctuating wildly, but were still overwhelming numbers.”

The Minnesota Department of Health reported 159 new cases of COVID-19 in the state on Friday, April 17, and 17 more deaths reported from the illness and its complications.

“Our medical examiner services are through the Ramsey County Medical Examiner's Office … and they contract with roughly half of the counties in Minnesota ... so our plan does not count on them to be able to provide capacity for us,” Houle said.

Walz extended his stay-at-home order on April 8 until May 4. His order to close bars, restaurants and other places of public gatherings was also extended until May 4.

“No one is more thankful than I that the current modeling shows many fewer deaths in Minnesota, but current modeling is still showing the potential for over 200 deaths in Crow Wing County in a relatively short period of time,” Houle said.

As many as 200,000 to 1.7 million people could die, according to initial estimates about COVID-19 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The calculations suggested 2.4 million to 21 million people in the United States could also require hospitalization.

County officials are following recommended guidelines and best practices to prevent the spread of the coronavirus such as social distancing. County commissioners sit at least 6 feet apart from one another at the board meetings, for example, which can be viewed on YouTube at https://bit.ly/34MiHhB.

“Very simply, no county has that kind of morgue capacity. So, yes, we do have a mass fatalities plan and that is a component of it,” Houle said of a worst-case scenario of the pandemic.

The semitrailer measures 50 feet by 8 feet, 6 inches and includes refrigeration capability, according to Houle, and currently stores personal protective equipment such as face masks for law enforcement and health care workers, and materials to transform it into a morgue.

“It’s just a storage trailer right now and I hope it won’t be needed. And, if it isn’t, we’ll just sell it. We also hope we won’t need the PPE, but that hasn’t stopped us from trying to acquire as much of it as we possibly can,” Houle said.

The county administrator is the chief operating officer for the county. The administrator reports directly to the county board of commissioners and acts as a liaison between the board and county departments.

“I absolutely hate this part of my job. There were no classes in my schooling that could ever mentally prepare you to plan ‘what-if’ scenarios around mass fatalities in a community you love,” Houle said. “We are all trying to preach calm and planning as more appropriate than panic.”

Houle said he prays the semitrailer will not be needed as a mass morgue and should it not be used for such grim purposes he believes it could be sold for about what the county paid for it.

“Mass fatality planning is one of the most morbid things I’ve done in my career, and I can honestly say that I would very much like to be proven a fool for having planned for the worst while praying for the best,” Houle said.



FRANK LEE, county and features reporter, may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL.