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Deaths down but Maryland seeks to keep housing ‘COVID-19 remains’ in makeshift morgue in downtown Baltimore parking garage

A makeshift morgue housed in a downtown Baltimore parking garage that put a harsh spotlight on a massive backlog in cases at the state medical examiners’ office is poised to remain in business until January to accommodate “COVID-19 remains.”

The Maryland Department of Health turned to the makeshift morgue space during the pandemic’s peak in January, spending about $30,000 a month, and officials have asked the state spending board to approve paying an additional $180,000 in rent during its meeting Wednesday.

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That figure includes $37,000 in retroactive rent, which went unpaid because of a “miscommunication in the continuing need for this space,” according to the Board of Public Works agenda description for the contract, issued without competitive bidding.

The Maryland Department of Health has asked the state spending board to continue funding a makeshift morgue housed in the downtown parking garage of the former Social Security Administration building. The Maryland Department of Health turned to the makeshift morgue space during the pandemic’s peak in January, spending about $30,000 a month.

Why the state continues to need more space for bodies, however, remains unclear. It wasn’t explained on the board’s agenda and a health department spokesman did not respond to questions about how many bodies have been or are currently housed in the Greene Street morgue or their possible cause of death.

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“The Greene Street parking morgue is part of the state’s continued COVID-19 operations,” said Chase Cook, a health department spokesman, who also pointed to a document that outlines the state’s pandemic preparedness efforts.

Experts say there could be another big wave of infections in the fall or winter, and administration of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has other contingency plans in place.

But COVID-19 deaths statewide have dropped considerably since January when there were as many as 80 deaths a day. Deaths from the virus have been in the single digits since mid-March, and four COVID-19 deaths were reported Monday. Further, officials have said the majority of COVID-19 deaths do not require autopsies.

The department has said the morgue space is shared with the state’s anatomy board, which handles unclaimed bodies as well as people who donate their bodies to medical schools are for other purposes.

Deaths requiring autopsies are unattended or suspicious, and much of the former backlog in the examiners’ office — between 200 and 300 at the peak — was attributed to a spike in fatal overdoses and some homicides and not COVID-19. The slow rate of clearance and overwhelming caseload per examiner nearly cost the prestigious office its national accreditation, which is not required to operate but needed to instill trust by the public and the legal system.

The backlog was cleared in March with the aid of a federal team.

“Things are much better here; there is no backlog and hasn’t been in months and the doctors are staying on top of things,” said Bruce Goldfarb, spokesman for the office, officially known as the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

The office has been operating with far fewer medical examiners than needed for years, a shortfall attributed to a national shortage of pathologists and the crushing workload. The issue came to a head in February, leading to the resignation of the former chief Dr. Victor Weedn after a tumultuous year when the pace of the examiners’ exodus quickened. He has not yet been replaced.

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Cook also said there is no backlog in the medical examiners’ office.

“The search for the new chief medical examiner is ongoing,” the health department spokesman said. “There are 12 examiners as of now, including the interim chief.”

The office had 20 full-time medical examiners at the start of 2022, down by four from a year earlier.

If approved by the board, the morgue, at 300-400 N. Greene St., will be funded until Jan. 4.

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The garage, part of the massive former Social Security Administration office that closed in 2014, is owned by Caves Valley Partners, a Towson-based developer. A representative of the firm did not respond to a request for comment Monday evening.

The health department wrote on the board’s agenda that the space is “ideally situated for this purpose” because of its central location in the state and its proximity to the State Anatomy Board in Baltimore allowing for staff and resource sharing.

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On Monday, the garage door entrance was shut and appeared unattended from the outside.

The lack of explanation for the morgue’s use troubled Sen. Clarence Lam, a Baltimore County and Howard County Democrat who chairs the General Assembly’s joint audit committee and has been tracking emergency expenditures by the state during the coronavirus pandemic.

He said the state has spent hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on emergency contracts and “they have been shrouded in secrecy.” That can make their purpose unclear and the value unknown.

If there is a continued need for a temporary morgue, such as for a potential new wave of deaths or an unexpected level of unclaimed bodies, officials should say so.

“We’re seeing COVID death rates in the single digits,” said Lam, also a physician. “That doesn’t seem like it would add up to a huge number of bodies that necessitate continuation of an emergency morgue. Most COVID deaths are in the hospital and are not unattended or unexplained, so they don’t need an autopsy. Seems murky why they still need the emergency morgue.”


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