Late last week, the Ohio Funeral Directors Association (OFDA) strongly urged Governor Mike DeWine and his administration to ensure Ohio’s funeral directors, and their employees, be given immediate access to the COVID-19 vaccine.
“We appreciate and acknowledge the leadership of Governor Mike DeWine and his administration in dealing with this devastating pandemic. We recognize that physicians, nurses, long term care residents and staff deserve first priority in receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. However, when retrieving those who died as a result of the coronavirus from our hospitals and nursing homes, these men and women in the death care industry are also on the front line of this pandemic. They are putting themselves in harm’s way daily,” said OFDA executive director Melissa Sullivan in a news release.
The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) and CDC’s Advisory Council on Immunization Practices (ACIP) both recommended that death care workers be placed into Phase 1A for vaccine allocation. Phase 1B is already in motion.
Funeral Workers Reality
Death care workers are on the front line of the pandemic and exposed daily to positive COVID-19 individuals as they enter hospitals and nursing homes to navigate their way through hallways to patient rooms and morgues. Moreover, an ever-increasing number of removing deceased COVID-19 victims are taking place from private residences where family members have been exposed.
Although some protection is provided through PPE, exposure continues as they prepare bodies for disposition, console surviving family members, and greet those attending services.
Unlike most other public gatherings, Ohio placed no limits on attendance at funerals forcing funeral home personnel to deal with large numbers of attendees, some of which do not comply with masking or social distancing requirements.
“While funeral directors do comply with CDC guidelines and state orders, the potential for being a hub for the spread of this virus is genuinely concerning. Just as has been done in every other state surrounding Ohio, and 38 states in total, we strongly urge the Governor to correct this oversight as soon as possible and amend Phase 1B to include funeral directors, embalmers, and their staff for immediate vaccine distribution,” says Sullivan.
ODH Chief Medical Director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff is quoted regarding the “tsunami of cases” anticipated in the near future. If death care workers are unable to safely care for and carry out the disposition of decedents, where do families turn for these vital services? Bodies will be left at hospitals or placed into refrigerator trailers as occurred in New York at the outset of the pandemic and which is now taking place in Southern California and Texas.
“There are approximately 3,600 Ohio death care workers. Some have received vaccine via crossover roles and a significant number are 65+ in age, so the potential class of workers may be less than 3,000. This small workforce is critical to public health, offering a vital service to communities and families,” Sullivan says.
Need Is Critical
The ODH indicates “vaccines are being directed to where they can save the most lives”, a responsible decision, but one must consider those that are essential for caring for others, both living and dead, Sullivan urges.
As recommended by federal agencies, because of their exposure and to protect the limited number of death care workers, placement in phase 1A or 1B is essential, she adds.