The stench of a decaying body filled the lobby of the Cowlitz County morgue Wednesday afternoon.
In 900 square feet — about the size of a couple two-car garages — Cowlitz County Coroner Tim Davidson and a handful of employees tend to the decedents. But the small space leaves the office short of its basic needs — for one thing, providing a space for the public separate from the unpleasantries of a morgue. A county consultant this year ranked the morgue and the roof of the Hall of Justice first in the county’s capital improvement needs.
“Visitors, they shouldn’t be able to smell or hear the effects of what’s going on in the morgue,” Davidson said. “If I’m running a bonesaw, you shouldn’t be able to hear that in the waiting room.”
That’s why the morgue closes down when a body is being examined — forcing the coroner to meet bereaved families outside, sometimes in the rain. Bodies also need to be wheeled through the small lobby when they have to get from the cooler to the examining room for autopsies.
The county is designing a new morgue. But in seven months, the morgue will likely be put on probationary accreditation and be ordered to take corrective measures required by federal standards.
“Our hands are still tied by the economy of the county and the county budget,” Davidson said. “But it just amplifies the need and the urgency of what needs to be done.”
The county had completed a blueprint for a new morgue in 2007, Davidson said, but the recession killed those plans.
Since the morgue moved to the corner of Third Avenue and Washington Street in 1998, caseloads have increased from under 200 a year to more than 900 due in part to an aging population, Davidson said. Another factor has been a 2008 policy change to evaluate all at-home deaths and nursing home deaths that resulted from an accident or circumstances other than natural causes.
A new morgue would cost $2.3 million, said county commissioner Joe Gardner. The county is short about $3 million for its capital improvement projects, which first and foremost include fixing the Hall of Justice roof and building a new morgue, officials said. Commissioners would have to determine which of the two projects — which together cost $4.7 million — they would want to complete first.
The morgue’s body cooler can hold 16 bodies at most. On Wednesday it had 13. The coroner’s office has an arrangement with funeral homes to provide space when the morgue fills up.
The morgue also doesn’t have a place to conduct x-rays — forcing St. John to shut down its x-ray facilities when the morgue needs it — or an isolation room. When the body of a man who died of a bacterial infection arrived in August 2014, during the Ebola scare, it shut down the morgue for one and a half weeks, Davidson said. Chief Deputy Coroner Brett Dundas handled the case armed in a moonsuit.
“I felt that it was my responsibility being the senior man. I didn’t want to have any of the other employees put their families at risk,” said Dundas, who determined the man died of a flesh-eating disease. “The way that he died sent out a huge red flag to us.”
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Then there’s the floor drain in the examining room, which doesn’t accommodate the slope of the room. So liquids go around the drain and reach the walls, Davidson said, increasing the risk of contamination.
The county allocated about $900,000 in this year’s budget to design a new Hall of Justice roof and the new morgue, which may be built in county-owned storage building near the existing morgue. Davidson said the Kelso building that currently houses Love Overwhelming was likely eliminated as an option.
“Nobody really wants a morgue in their neighborhood,” Commissioner Mike Karnofski said.
The new morgue space probably won’t be funded and built in time for June, when it likely will be put on probation and ordered to remedy its shortcomings.
“I’d be happy if it was a cinderblock building,” Davidson said. “A morgue doesn’t have to be fancy. It just needs to be functional.”