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U.S. Agencies Plan for Mass Deaths

Global Security Newswire

The Bush administration in planning for a flu or other contagious pandemic might have failed to prepare for handling large numbers of corpses left behind by the outbreak, , the Washington Post reported today (see GSN, Nov. 13, 2003).

The White House's 227-page response plan for pandemic flu makes only a few references to handling the dead. The death toll, however, could reach 1.9 million in an epidemic akin to the 1918 pandemic.

"It's almost too big to wrap your arms around," said John Nesler, a specialist in mass fatalities who advises the military. In the worst-case scenario, Nesler said the death count would be similar to that caused by "20 nuclear detonations."

Even in a lesser outbreak, funeral homes would be short-staffed for 18 months, crematories would operate 24 hours a day, group gatherings would be limited, and casket supplies would plummet, experts said. It would not take long for morgues and hospitals to reach capacity.

Federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Teams would be swamped and unable to deploy in another community or state, the Post reported.

"I can't see myself packing my bags to go to another state to help out," said Joyce deJong, a Michigan medical examiner who joined teams in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina. "I'll be here dealing with an increase in the number of bodies."

Medical examiners, funeral directors, health experts and casket producers met in March in Virginia to discuss the issue. Ideas discussed included storing bodies in hockey rinks, backyard burials or using temporary mass graves.

Officials from the Homeland Security Department, which would coordinate the response to a flu outbreak, were "noticeably absent from the discussion," said John Fitch, senior vice president for advocacy at the National Funeral Directors Association.

"Right now, there is no single agency or individual responsible for mass fatalities," Fitch said.

Bush administration officials, who hosted the conference, say local communities and states would largely be responsible for handling that aspect of a flu crisis.

Virginia chief medical examiner Marcella Fierro said the state is developing software systems that would help track the dead and contact family members.

Fierro is also preparing a list of retired employees who could aid the office, the Post reported.

Nesler suggested "virtual funerals" broadcast over closed-circuit television or the Internet, rather than live gatherings where the disease could be spread.

"It's the one thing nobody wants to address, because it's ugly," Fitch said. "People don't want to think that anyone will die" (Ceci Connolly, Washington Post, June 9)"