It's been more than seven months since Minnesota purchased a $5.5 million warehouse designed to serve as a temporary morgue in anticipation of a significant death toll from COVID-19 that could push capacity limits at funeral homes.
Now, after the state health department reported 1,140 COVID-19 deaths in November, that warehouse, which can store up to 5,100 bodies, is nearly ready to serve its primary function if needed.
"The State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC) is taking necessary steps to ensure the 1415 L’Orient building is ready if needed for COVID-19 fatality management in Minnesota," a spokesperson from the SEOC told Bring Me The News.
"The SEOC began testing the cold storage components of the facility today (Monday, Nov. 30). Staff also began installing equipment, including shelving, that would permit the short term storage of remains that are in caskets and are prepared for burial. This facility will not store unprepared remains."
The SEOC spokesperson noted that the warehouse is "designed to serve as a backstop" for funeral homes, mortuaries and morgues, which have "not exceeded either their baseline or surge capacities at this time."
Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday estimated that funeral homes, mortuaries, morgues and medical examiners are presently at "60% or more" capacity."
"It's not that there is an imminent use of using this, it's just making sure that it's functional, it's ready to go," said Walz, who noted that an unidentified hospital recently requested to use the warehouse as a morgue without first checking to see if local funeral homes had capacity, which they did.
According to a request form from the Department of Administration, a survey of the state's funeral homes, medical examiner offices and hospitals in May found that the metro area has the capacity to store 1,262 bodies. The statewide capacity, based on that May report, is 2,006 bodies.
The warehouse is currently being used to store personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing supplies, and may also be used as vaccine storage once shipments are made to Minnesota. That could happen within weeks, according to Gov. Walz.
The building was purchased at a time when the state was seeing around 30 deaths per day from COVID-19. But the most people with COVId-19 hospitalized in May was just over 600, whereas there are now 1,840 peopled admitted to Minnesota hospitals to help them fight the disease, including 394 patients in intensive care.