Footage from a local news crew shows 20 soaking wet body bags sitting in the rain outside Memorial Hospital of Gardena in Los Angeles. Employees of the hospital can be seen rearranging the bodies of deceased COVID-19 patients before moving them to a mobile freezer in the parking lot. The footage has sparked criticism across California, but the hospital denied the claims outright.
Overcrowding the Morgue
According to a spokesperson for the hospital, the morgue could only hold six bodies, which has been an ongoing problem throughout the pandemic. But the spokesperson denied the claims that the bodies were left out in the rain.
“Because of the overcrowding situation, hospital administrators took action yesterday to organize the outdoor cooling unit in a more orderly fashion,” the hospital said in a statement. “Hospital protocol calls upon security guards to assist in the process when mortuaries come to pick up bodies, primarily helping to lift and move the bodies.”
An anonymous witness described the scene to reporters. They said they saw a hospital employee sobbing as they loaded the dead bodies into the morgue in the middle of a downpour.
“Security had tears in their eyes. They’re crying. Some of the security had to leave because they got fluid on their clothes when they did move the bodies,” the witness said.
The witness said the fact that there was fluid on their clothes shows that the bodies weren’t being stored at the proper temperature, thus contradicting the hospital’s claims.
“Impossible. Those bodies were defrosted. They were decomposing,” the witness said.
The hospital said 11 of the 19 bodies being transferred to the morgue hadn’t been claimed by family members and the Los Angeles County had yet to pick them up.
Vidal Herrera, owner of a local autopsy company, corroborated the witness’s account and said that it was illegal for the hospital to store bodies that way. Herrera said they received calls from a mortuary picking up the bodies that they saw “piled up, bloody body bags and didn’t know what to do.”
“I could see a lot of bodily fluids, and right there the pathogens- that can expose security guards and whomever walks in there. A body should never be there for more than two weeks,” he said.
The rapid rise in the number of COVID-19 cases is putting pressure on hospitals and mortuaries all over the country.
“This is happening in small facilities, all over. It’s going to get worse with COVID surges. It’s far from over,” Herrera added.
Officials from the hospital said they are working on getting more freezer space to “alleviate the overcrowding.”
California recently saw a 300% increase in the number of cases between Monday and Tuesday, going from 16,668 cases to 49,384.
Pipeline Health, the company that owns the hospital, provided more context for what was happening with the bodies. “The bodies that were briefly removed from the outside cooling unit Tuesday evening were re-bagged and promptly returned to the unit that evening,” officials said in an email.
A security guard later reported that they were asked to rearrange the bodies while other employees cleaned out the freezer before putting them back in.
Pipeline added that the bodies have since been relocated and the overcrowding is no longer an issue.
“As of this evening, the hospital has 6 bodies on site, in the hospital’s morgue and in the temporary cooling unit outside. The hospital no longer has an overcrowding situation. Additionally, the hospital expects delivery of a larger cooling unit on Monday,” the company said.
They said they successfully moved 13 bodies to local morgues and thanked local mortuaries and Los Angeles County for making that possible.