(JAMAICA GLEANER) — Concerned that persons who die from COVID-19 may still be infectious, funeral home operators are being warned to avoid direct contact with blood and other fluids from the bodies.
Jamaica’s health ministry has also cautioned that funeral home workers should properly dispose of personal protective equipment after handling the body of someone infected with the virus or other infectious diseases.
The warnings are among guidelines crafted by the Ministry of Health and Wellness, and circulated to funeral home operators islandwide as part of the measures to help contain the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), and protect employees across the industry.
Jamaica has 55 confirmed cases of COVID-19 up to yesterday, with three deaths. The first victim, a 79-year-old man from Clarendon and New York in the United States, died on March 18.
STILL NOT BURIED
Up to late Friday, he had not been buried, the funeral home that has possession of his body confirmed.
“I’m waiting on instructions. I haven’t received any, neither from the ministry [of health] nor the family,” the operator of the funeral home told The Sunday Gleaner, even as he admitted that he was aware that the protocol for the treatment of infectious disease was in effect.
However, Dunstan Bryan, permanent secretary in the health ministry, was at a loss as to what “instructions” the funeral home operator was awaiting.
Bryan insisted that the guidelines, with a raft of recommendations on how to treat with the body of a COVID-19 victim, were circulated to funeral home operators through their representative body, the Jamaica Association of Certified Embalmers and Funeral Directors.
The protocol was also shared with The Sunday Gleaner.
The association, through its president, Calvin Lyn, confirmed that the guidelines have been circulated, but said members have been instructed to seek guidance from the health ministry as soon as they take possession of the body of a COVID-19 victim.
Noting that registered funeral homes are familiar with protocols for infectious diseases from the days of the onset of the HIV virus, Lyn disclosed that his members have already secured supplies of body bags and personal protective equipment – including some that were purchased in preparation for the Ebola virus outbreak a few years ago.
“We use the same body bags with our precautionary measures – your masks, shields, gloves and disposable clothes,” he said.
The health ministry noted, in the guidelines, that all COVID-19 dead bodies are “potentially infectious”, and warned that standard precautions should be implemented for every case.
“Infectious agents can be transmitted when persons are in contact with blood, body fluids or tissues of the dead body of a person with infectious diseases,” the circular warned.
“To minimise the risks of transmission of known and unsuspected infectious diseases, dead bodies should be handled in a manner that will prevent direct exposure of workers to blood, body fluids and tissues.”
REAL WORLD PRACTICE
As the much-feared COVID-19 sweeps across the world, leaving a pile of dead bodies in its wake, researchers and medical professionals continue to study the new virus and its devastating impact, both in life and death, even as they scramble to contain it and find a vaccine to treat it.
Originating in the Wuhan province of China in December last year, COVID-19 has now spread to practically every country, with approximately 1,159,515 confirmed cases globally, and an estimated 62,375 deaths. So far, roughly 225,066 persons have recovered.
Dr Alfred Dawes, one of Jamaica’s leading medical practitioners, said the guidelines prepared by the local health ministry are in keeping with international standards, and if adhered to will decrease the chances of contracting COVID-19 from dead bodies. However, he is apprehensive about the protocols being put into actual practice.
“Based on ongoing research into this new threat the world is now facing, the health ministry is right on point with its protocol. However, my concern is whether we can translate what looks good on paper to best practices in the real world,” noted Dawes, who is the medical director of Windsor Wellness Centre and Carivia Medical Ltd.
“Do funeral home workers have enough PPEs (personal protective equipment)? Are they trained properly in donning and doffing the protective gear? Are the facilities equipped to perform autopsies according to the guidelines? If not, are we preparing the facilities with proper areas for donning and doffing of PPEs?”
The former senior medical officer of the Savanna-la-Mar Public General Hospital added, “We must take note that while PPEs can reduce the chances of getting infected, if they are not properly worn or, more important, safely removed, one can easily get infected. N95 masks must fit properly, for example. It is during the doffing procedure that many persons get infected when the suits contaminate them while being removed. These practical aspects must be addressed if we are to effectively combat this virus.”