Funeral workers say they should be considered essential workers, don’t have PPE to keep them safe

Over the last week, Channel 2?s Michael Seiden has spoken with a half dozen funeral directors and morticians about the problem and how the coronavirus is creating a potential danger for them.

CARROLL COUNTY, Ga. — Georgians working in the funeral industry tell Channel 2 Action News that they are concerned for their safety because there’s a shortage of personal protective equipment such as gloves and masks.

Over the last week, Channel 2’s Michael Seiden has spoken with a half dozen funeral directors and morticians about the problem and how the coronavirus is creating a potential danger for them.

They told him they are desperate for hospital gowns, masks and gloves.

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In fact, one mortician who has already prepared 15 coronavirus victims for burial told me that if they don't get the supplies soon, she believes many of her colleagues will be forced to shut down their businesses.

Latasha Grant is a mortician in metro Atlanta. She gave Seiden an exclusive look into the vital role she and so many others in the funeral industry are playing during this pandemic.

In the last 30 days, Grant said she has prepared the bodies of nine COVID-19 victims for burial.

On the day Seiden spent time with her, Grant was preparing an infected body at Willie A. Watkins Funeral Home in Carrollton.

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Before she could begin the embalming process, she, like so many other workers on the front lines, had to dress head-to-toe in personal protective equipment. But these days, critical supplies are at an all-time low.

"Normally, there's boxes of these gowns. Normally, there's a case of masks. There's just one mask here. Luckily, I have some of these in my car," Grant said showing Seiden the supply closet. "I don't have many more, so once we run out, I'm praying I'll be able to get some more from somewhere else."

Grant, a mother of four, knows firsthand how dangerous the virus is. She told Seiden that her mother and ex-husband came down with COVID-19. Both have recovered, but her mother, who is in her 60s and has underlying health conditions, almost didn't make it out of the hospital alive, Grant said.

"We were talking to her one day and the next day they were rushing into the respirator," she said. "We didn't talk to her for almost 30 days. She was on that respirator and we truly didn't think she was going to come out of it."

Grant said she is uncertain as to where her mother and ex-husband contracted the virus. She worries about her own risk because a study has shown the virus can spread from a deceased body to a living person.

"There’s still air in your lungs and sometimes when you move the body from one table to the next, even the removal guys when they are removing the body, the bodies can express the air from their lungs,” Grant said.

According to the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those workers in the funeral industry are at a greater risk of exposure to the virus when handling bodies unless they're wearing disposable gloves and gowns, a face shield or goggles and masks.

But Grant said it's nearly impossible to access new equipment because her industry isn’t given priority.

"There’s a chemical company where I ordered some gowns from, but I was only allowed to order six. Six gowns. That’s gone in two or three days," Grant said.

“So when you call these companies, they basically tell you they’re reserved for what?” Seiden asked Grant.

“They’re reserved for medical personnel or they’re just out. Even when I try to order on Amazon, they’re reserved for medical personnel," Grant said.

Carol Williams, executive director of the National Funeral and Morticians Association, represents hundreds of funeral directors, morticians and embalmers across the country.

She and her husband, Carl, own a funeral home in the Atlanta area and have experienced similar issues when ordering PPE and body bags.

"We've had members pass away because they didn't have proper PPE," Williams said. "We just ordered 100 body bags three weeks ago and it's back ordered because we aren't first responders."

Despite a decline in coronavirus cases statewide, Williams fears another outbreak could cause funeral workers to shut down their businesses and create disturbing situations similar to those seen last month outside funeral homes in New York City.

That's why she's reached out to the state for help.

"GEMA gave me about six (phone) numbers and all the numbers didn't know what I was talking about," Williams said.

Funeral director Darrell Watkins has been in business for nearly four decades and has handled about 40 funerals for COVID-19 victims since March.

He has this message for state lawmakers:

“We have a great deal of respect for healthcare but as the deaths are our industry, we are dealing with the same particular person with the same virus. We have family. We have to go to work and we want to be treated as essential workers,” Watkins said.

Encompass is working non-stop to help produce PPE for people across the country.