More than 2,700 bodies were being stored but could not be cremated due to air-quality regulations, according to the executive order

By Jen Juneau
January 19, 2021 12:47 PM
Los Angeles COVID
Coroner works with National Guardsmen to process COVID-19 deaths to be placed into temporary storage at L.A. County Medical Examiner-Coroner Office
| Credit: LA County Dept. of Medical/AP/Shutterstock

The South Coast Air Quality Management District has announced a suspension of cremation limits in Los Angeles County as a result of body-storage capacity issues, as the number of coronavirus-related deaths in the county continues to rise.

An executive order published Sunday by South Coast AQMD Executive Officer Wayne Nastri said he was, effective immediately and at least through Jan. 27, "suspend(ing) permit conditions limiting the number of cremations or amount of human remains cremated for qualifying human crematoria" that met a list of conditions, one of which was capacity limits.

"The Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner ("Coroner") has confirmed that there exists an urgent need for additional human crematory services to deal with the increased demand for such services resulting from deaths due to COVID-19, and other causes," the order states.

According to the order, "over 2,700 bodies are currently being stored at hospitals and the Coroner's office" as of Friday, but before Sunday, the 28 crematories in the county could not perform the number of cremations needed to alleviate capacity concerns, due to air-quality regulations.

"The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health has confirmed that the growing backlog of cremation cases within the county constitutes a threat to public health," the order states, adding, "The Los Angeles County Coroner has requested that South Coast AQMD suspend such limiting conditions in order to protect public health and respond to the emergency."

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Los Angeles COVID
Temporary storage for COVID-19 deaths at L.A. County Medical Examiner-Coroner Office
| Credit: LA County Dept. of Medical/AP/Shutterstock

Nastri also says in the order "that the current rate of deaths in Los Angeles County is more than double that of pre-pandemic years, according to the Coroner."

Furthermore, the Coroner "anticipates that another surge is approaching as a result of the New Year's holiday, since deaths tend to occur four to six weeks after gatherings," which would put a further strain on resources.

South Coast AQMD Director of Communications Nahal Mogharabi told The Guardian that this is the first time the limits have ever been suspended, and that the impact of lifting the limits on air toxicity was expected to be "relatively small."

A man at the Cremation Society of Los Angeles who answered the phone told The Guardian that no one could speak to the outlet because they were busy, noting, "We're over capacity."

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Earlier this month, L.A. officials said a person dies every eight minutes from COVID-19 in the county. And on Saturday, L.A. became the first county in the United States to report 1 million coronavirus cases since the onset of the pandemic last year.

"Our community is bearing the brunt of the winter surge, experiencing huge numbers of cases, hospitalizations and deaths, five-times what we experienced over the summer," Dr. Barbara Ferrer, L.A. county's public health director, in a statement to NBC News.

As of Tuesday morning, there have been at least 3,032,000 coronavirus cases and 33,742 related deaths in the state of California, according to a New York Times database. The next two states with the highest number of infections are Texas, with over 2 million cases, and Florida, with more than 1.5 million.

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