Air quality regulators have lifted the limits on the number of cremations that can be performed in Los Angeles county, citing a death rate that is more than double the pre-pandemic norm and an unmanageable backlog of dead bodies.
More than 2,700 bodies were being stored at local hospitals and the county coroner’s office as of Friday 15 January, the South Coast air quality management district said on Sunday in explaining its decision to enact an executive order suspending limits on cremations.
This is the first time the South Coast AQMD has ever lifted its limits on cremations, said Nahal Mogharabi, the agency’s director of communications.
The 28 crematoriums in Los Angeles county have the capacity to perform more cremations, but most of their permits include a monthly cap on cremations due to environmental regulations, the regulator said. Environmentalists have for years called for limits on cremations, which studies have shown release toxic mercury emissions from dental fillings. Mogharabi said the “air toxics impacts” resulting from the executive order were expected to be “relatively small”.
The order came at the request of the Los Angeles county coroner’s office and department of public health, which both confirmed that the backlog was in and of itself a potential threat to public health, the South Coast AQMD said. It also warned that the coroner anticipated “another surge” of deaths to begin four to six weeks after the New Year’s holiday.
A man who answered the phone at the Cremation Society of Los Angeles said no one was available to speak because they were too busy. “We’re over capacity,” he said, declining to give his name.
The backlog of bodies is just the latest chilling detail to illustrate the severity of the coronavirus crisis in Los Angeles. As of Sunday, the county had suffered 13,848 total deaths to due Covid-19, more than half of them in the less than two months since Thanksgiving.
Hospitals in the region are struggling to care for the sickest among the more than 13,000 new cases that are being diagnosed every day. Health officials have instructed ambulances not to transport patients who have little chance of survival; some hospitals are struggling to maintain their supplies of oxygen.
The strain on the “decedent management system” is just one aspect of the crisis. The California national guard has been called in to assist hospitals and morgues by storing corpses in refrigerated trucks, LA Times reported.
Meanwhile, hope of relief from the various coronavirus vaccines remains far off. California has thus far administered first doses of the vaccination to just 2.2% of its population, one of the lowest rates in the country. Just Idaho, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama fall behind it, according to an analysis of CDC data by the New York Times.