Add one more industry to the long list of those struggling to get personal protective equipment (PPE) amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Funeral home directors, who wear PPE when they pick up deceased bodies from nursing homes, hospitals, morgues, or private residences — and when they embalm — are having a tough time securing the protective gear.
“Every funeral home I know of has severe problems with PPE shortages,” Don Otto, executive director of the Missouri Funeral Directors and Embalmers Association, told FOX4. “The supply chain that funeral directors normally use has completely dried up. Our vendors can’t get PPE, and that’s particularly true with N95 masks and disposable gowns.
“N95 masks are our biggest need,” Otto added. “Disposable gowns are impossible to find and proper gloves can also be difficult to find, particularly in certain sizes. We can find extra-small gloves, but those don’t help people most of the time.”
Contributing to the shortage during this outbreak is the low priority given to funeral homes for emergency PPEs, Otto said.
“While funeral home directors are in the same category as far as the federal government is concerned as hospitals, doctors, and EMTs, the fact of the matter is we haven’t gotten much of the emergency supply,” he said. “We got a small supply of N95 masks at the very beginning of this crisis, about 1,000, but those were already in the stockpile.
“Beyond that, we haven’t been able to secure masks or gowns from any of the emergency supply,” Otto added. “I’m not trying to downplay any other groups who need PPE because so many do. But very often so much attention is paid to the very legitimate need of the first responder that the last responder is ignored. Oftentimes, the funeral directors are an after-thought.”
The head of the Kansas Funeral Directors Association echoes Otto’s concerns.
“Funeral directors have had difficulty receiving PPEs in Kansas,” the association’s Pam Scott said.
“We have found that priority has been given to medical care providers and funeral homes have been somewhat down the line in the chain. We have found that funeral directors are definitely not a priority.”
But funeral homes are on the frontlines of this pandemic, she said. And they need PPE now more than ever.
“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that in all cases funeral home directors wear PPE when handling the deceased,” Scott said. “They were wearing PPE in all cases, especially when embalming. It’s not just COVID-19 cases.”
“But we’re particularly concerned about this with the onslaught of COVID-19,” she added. “Funeral home directors could be picking up a deceased person and they have no way of knowing it the body is infected with COVID-19 or not. That’s a risk for our funeral home directors. And some nursing homes are now asking funeral home directors to wear full PPE when they remove a body.”
The National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) even called on President Trump to ensure the “deathcare” industry had access to PPE, warning their members were at “extremely high-risk for exposure” to COVID-19.”
“In order to perform essential public-health tasks, deathcare workers must have access to PPE,” the association’s CEO Christine Pepper wrote in a March 20, 2020, letter to the president.
“Caring for the bodies of individuals who died due to COVID-19 places funeral directors and embalmers at risk for exposure to the virus. We ask that you include deathcare as an ‘essential service’ so deathcare workers receive priority access to PPEs.”
In the Kansas City area, funeral home directors say some PPEs are still in short supply.
“Yes, we are having shortages of PPEs,” said Chris Holland, managing funeral director of Penwell-Gabel Funeral Home in Olathe. “I’ve got medium gloves, but I can’t get large ones. They’re back-ordered and I put my order in a month ago. I haven’t seen disruptions (in our supply chain) like this in the past.
“COVID-19 has stressed our supply chains and it came at a time that requires us to use more PPE than we would on a normal basis,” he added. “It’s kind of a perfect storm for us. We’re using more PPE and there’s less of it in the supply chain.”
Holland, however, said he has enough N95 mask in stock for now.
“But some suppliers are marking up the prices of masks,” he said. “We were able to see some of this (pandemic) coming and stocked up on gowns. Our issue now is with gloves.”
Brad Speaks, president of the Speaks Chapels in Independence, said his funeral homes didn’t see the same shortages of PPEs as those in other parts of the country harder hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“While there is a shortage of PPE, we did not experience the same impact as funeral homes in Long Island or Manhattan in New York,” he said. “But if what happened on the East coast had happened here, we would have had the same problems.”
“Luckily for us, social distancing efforts worked. And that’s a good thing for our community. We also have suburban sprawl and we’re spread out over a four-county region. All that contributed to the fact that we didn’t get hit with the high number of cases that they did on the East coast.”
Speaks said he currently has enough N95 masks and other PPEs.
“But the supply chain needs to be fixed before a second wave hits,” he said.
If that doesn’t happen, and the industry continues to face shortages of PPE, funeral home directors warn there could be dire consequences.
“I could see a situation at some point where a funeral director, who is responsible for the safety of their employees and themselves, has to decide not pick up a body because they don’t have sufficient PPE,” said Don Otto with the Missouri Funeral Directors and Embalmers Association. “I know of no incidents where that’s happened yet. But it could happen.”
“Several morgues in Missouri require funeral homes directors to have on N95 masks when they pick up a body,” he added. “That’s new. But if you don’t have one, you can’t get that body. That goes against the grain of every funeral director I know, but it could certainly happen.”
Funeral home directors, however, remain committed to their role as “last responders” to provide care for the deceased and their families.
“I have every confidence that the supply chain will get caught up on PPEs,” Speaks said. “And funeral homes will be able to serve their communities. Every funeral home stands ready to do what needs to be done.”