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22 bodies moved into rented coolers as Maricopa County’s COVID-19 death rates put stress on funeral homes

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PHOENIX (KPNX) — The Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office moved 22 bodies overnight Tuesday to rented coolers at a county garage, 12 News has confirmed.

It is the first such move since the medical examiner's office more than doubled its cooler capacity in response to a surge in COVID-19 deaths. 

“The state numbers clearly show there is excess mortality in the county and this is putting stress on the funeral home system where remains go for burial or cremation,” county spokesman Fields Moseley said via email in response to a question from 12 News.

“We don’t know the cause and manner for most recent cases.”

Moseley said the bodies were moved to make room for new cases needing investigation. The medical examiner’s office handles sudden, unexpected or traumatic deaths.

In mid-July, the county’s public health director said funeral homes were running out of morgue space.

“That just backs up the rest of the system,” director Marcy Flanagan told reporters, linking a surge in deaths to COVID-19.

The county has leased 14 walk-in, refrigerated storage units for bodies through the middle of January, at a cost of almost $16,000 each, according to the rental contract. The units are housed at a county garage near downtown Phoenix.

This is the first time in at least a decade that the medical examiner's office has had to obtain refrigeration space.