TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WTXL) — The United States marked a morbid pandemic milestone this week when Johns Hopkins University reported the number of Americans who have died from COVID-19 is now more than 602,000.
As those numbers continue to grow, local funeral homes struggled to keep up with the surge in deaths and have since been drastically impacted by the pandemic. ABC 27's Angela Green spoke with local funeral home directors who explain how the pandemic forced changes to how they operate.
John Ricco, executive director of the Florida Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association says the number of deaths grew so fast funerals home were scrambling to keep up. He explained, "Just like you saw with hospitals, medical examiners and all types of medical professionals, funeral homes experienced the same influx in the number of families they had to serve.”
At the beginning of the COVID pandemic, how comfort was provided during grieving times changed with social distancing and bans on big gatherings. Funerals came to a halt and turned to graveside services. Ricco said, “With everything we saw with COVID that just simply wasn't possible"
So far more than 58,500 people in both Georgia (21,285) and Florida (37,265) have died from COVID-19 related illnesses.
At Strong and Jones Funeral Home in Tallahassee staff worked longer days and had to take extra precautions in how they operate. "We're just like first responders, come on the scene we have to deal with the bodies just like anyone else has to deal with them, if not in more detail," explained Thomas Griffin Jr.
Griffin has served as a funeral home director and embalmer for more than two decades. He relates the changes in the industry to concerns that were in place during the early stages of the AIDS crisis. “We just didn't know what we were up against,” he said.
While PPE was crucial for health care workers to stay protected against the virus Griffin says funeral home workers also had to protect themselves to enter both medical and long-term care facilities to remove bodies and get them ready for burial.
"Should we embalm, or do we just leave the body and do a direct burial because nobody could tell us," said Griffin.
The uncertainty also forced General Managers like Fionna Nicholson to move fast and make upgrades to their facilities, adding space for social distancing and more virtual options for services. She said some families watched services from the parking lot.
Nicholson says they made a huge investment in special cameras and microphones to upload services online for families that couldn't travel. It's an option that will stay in place beyond the pandemic, Nicholson said grieving families find that it’s much more convenient to have the virtual arrangement because they watch services from home, even for those who can’t travel.
Both Griffin and Nicholson said many families pre-paid for funeral services before the pandemic and their packages still must be honored. They're now working to help plan memorial services and celebrations of life so families and friends can finally and properly say goodbye to those we lost due to COVID-19.