Philadelphia officials condemned the unauthorized transfer of several bodies taken to the city’s morgue in the back of a Ford pickup truck Sunday afternoon.
The incident, first observed by a Philadelphia Inquirer photographer, involved the movement of five or six cadavers from Einstein Medical Center in North Philly to the Medical Examiner’s Office in University City, a distance of about 11 miles.
The pickup truck reportedly was observed unloading the bodies outside the Joseph W. Spellman Medical Examiner Building on University Avenue at around 3:30 p.m. It is not known whether the deceased individuals were victims of the coronavirus pandemic.
Three refrigerated trucks have been stationed at the medical examiner building to accept bodies from hospitals and funeral homes overwhelmed by the COVID-19 death toll. The trucks are not reserved solely for COVID-19 victims.
The bodies seen on the pickup truck, though covered, were stacked on top of one another and reportedly transported this way in the middle of the afternoon. Once the truck arrived, the bodies were removed from the the flatbed area one by one on a gurney.
Mayor Jim Kenney addressed the incident during Tuesday’s daily coronavirus briefing.
“This is extremely distressing,” Kenney said. “The visual was extremely distressing. When we talked about fatality management, one of the things I said to all people running our departments is I wanted people to be treated with dignity. They’re human beings, they’re family members of people. That is unconscionable what happened.”
Kenney said the city medical examiner had a “very stern” conversation with Einstein Medical Center about the incident and expressed that what occurred is not acceptable.
The transfer violated “well-established and long-standing transportation protocols,” according to a statement issued by health department spokesperson James Garrow. Health officials were “appalled” by the transfer, he added, saying “this is not normal or acceptable.”
“It’s a terrible occurrence that absolutely should not have occurred,” Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley added. “There are protocols to make sure that doesn’t happen and we are absolutely talking to the hospital to make sure that never happens again.”
Einstein Medical Center, like hospitals across the city and region, has contracts with funeral homes to properly transfer bodies to the city morgue. It’s not clear why protocols were broken. An Einstein spokesperson said the incident is under investigation.
“Einstein is working with the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s office to understand all details. At the conclusion of our own investigation into this matter, there will be swift and corrective action,” the spokesperson said. “While the COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented healthcare challenges, all patients should be treated with respect and dignity at every stage and this should never happen. We understand and feel for those family members and loved ones who’ve experienced pain during this difficult time.”
Philadelphia hit 10,027 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Monday and recorded 394 total deaths. Another 475 cases reported Tuesday showed some promise that new infections have stabilized, as the city uses daily case totals to help gauge how quickly and widely the infection is spreading.
“The number of new cases diagnosed each day has leveled off, which is a sign that we have slowed the spread of the virus by everyone keeping their distance from each other and wearing masks,” Farley said. “We just need to keep that up.”