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The toll on last responders

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TUCSON (KVOA) - The coronavirus has put a real strain on funeral homes, changing the ways funerals and memorial services are held. 

There are also serious concerns about storage space. 

It's never happened in funerals, says director April Seybert's who has almost 30 years in the business. 

"We are at capacity right now, so we are using OME to help us with storage," Seybert, the general manager at Carrillo's Tucson Mortuary said. 

Demand is so high right now, Carrillo's simply cannot keep up with the calls from families to come pick up their loved one's body.

"We had 10 in one day and we're a small firm," Seybert said. "To have 10 people in one day, it's unheard of."

She worries that one day she'll have to tell a family there is no more room. 
It's her greatest fear and a conversation Seybert can't rehearse for. 

"It's devastating," she said. "We haven't gotten to that point yet but for a family to call and request our services and for us to have to turn them away and tell them we cannot help them, we've never lived through anything like that."

A couple of weeks ago, Pima County couldn't keep up and Chief Medical Examiner Gregory Hess had to call in reinforcements, three refrigerated trucks. "Since Christmas, we brought in almost 300 remains in less than a month on behalf of funeral homes and hospitals," Dr. Hess said. "If we run out of space again, then we will bring in more refrigerated trucks."

Hess said he and his team are prepared for mass fatality events, including a pandemic, but he never thought it would come to this. 

"I've always thought that we were going to be okay in a mass fatality event because I did not imagine we'd reach the point where we'd run out but we did," he said. 

"I kind of cringe now coming to work, wondering what happened overnight and where our numbers are," Seybert said. 

Only days ago, funeral home workers in Pima County were vaulted up the priority list for the COVID vaccine. Seybert has an appointment next month. 

"We're not considered a first responder because we're not on the frontlines," the veteran funeral director said. "We're the last responders picking up the pieces afterward. And without us, I'm not sure what would happen, we're already at capacity with us here. Imagine if we all got sick and we had to shut the doors."

Seybert is used to caring for the dead and comforting the living.

She has been there for families on their toughest days for decades. But she has never before had to struggle with this uncertainty every day.

"You know if you're frustrated at work, you go home and you fall apart," she said. "All of us have shed tears, even here at work,  because we're overwhelmed at times. It's very difficult. You're still thinking about it until your head hits the pillow at night now." 

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Eric Fink

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