A state health expert believes the number of deaths has risen this year compared to 2019 in part because people are afraid to seek medical care during the pandemic, and funeral home directors say COVID-19 has changed their business.
According to the Alabama Center for Health Statistics, Lawrence, Morgan and Limestone counties recorded 339 more deaths this year through Dec. 23 than in all of 2019.
Lawrence County recorded 484 deaths after having 422 in 2019. Morgan County had 1,582 deaths in 2020 through Wednesday compared to 1,458 last year, and Limestone County had 1,010 this year compared to 857 last year. The ACHS said the 2020 numbers are preliminary.
Statewide, the number of deaths jumped from 54,171 to 59,041, an increase of 4,870. Last Wednesday, the Alabama Department of Public Health listed 4,587 deaths related to COVID-19, and that number had risen to 4,685 Saturday.
Judy Smith, administrator of the Alabama Department of Public Health Northern District, said COVID-19 is ravaging the lives of Alabamians and Americans.
“Directly related to COVID, look at the hospital numbers that are increasing every day because of this pandemic,” she said. “And indirectly, people are postponing going to the hospital. They’re dying because they fear going and getting COVID or being an imposition on the hospital staffs that are already overworked. … If you’re sick and need medical treatment, you need to go to the hospital. Don’t put it off.”
She said everyone must remember: “This time last year nobody was in the hospital for COVID. Now, it’s a dire situation.”
Hospitalizations for the virus were above 2,500 people statewide last week.
Funeral homes busier
Area funeral home directors and coroners are noticing an increase in the number of deaths, too, but some are hesitant to say it is all related to COVID.
Steve Smith, a funeral director at Lawrence Funeral Home in Moulton, said the company has seen a spike of 20 to 30 more calls in 2020 and said they were “possibly” COVID-related.
“Here in Lawrence County, in July and August we started getting calls, and it’s been pretty steady since,” he said.
Geoff Halbrooks, general manager at Peck Funeral Home in Hartselle, in business since 1929, called his volume of calls in 2020 “the largest year ever” in his 38 years with the funeral home.
“We were trending about the same most of the year, then in early November we saw a real uptick,” Halbrooks said. “We’ve probably done 75 more calls this year. We’re up about 15% overall. We’ve had about 600 calls.”
He said he hasn’t had to add extra personnel.
“It’s not fair to say COVID is the sole reason. People who follow the trends in the industry have been saying the baby boomers are getting older,” he said. “Most of our calls involve elderly people, but we’ve had some young people, too. We don’t always know the cause of death. Sometimes somebody has diabetes or obesity and then they contract COVID.”
Greg Spry, owner at Spry Funeral Home in Athens, said the past six weeks call volume has been “extremely high,” and he believes “it is 100% COVID-related.”
He said Spry handles an average of about 250 deaths annually with a high of 282. “We passed that number a couple of weeks ago,” he said. “We could be close to going over 300.”
More graveside services
Spry and Smith said visitations and chapel services have changed the most. They said when Gov. Kay Ivey put a limit on the size of gatherings in March, it altered the public’s way of saying goodbye to loved ones.
“Nighttime visitations are almost unheard of now. They’ve just gone away,” Spry said, also calling requests for chapel services “tremendously down.”
“Keeping people distanced from one another is next to impossible.”
Smith said small graveside services are now the norm.
“Everything became graveside services, and visitations had limited attendance. But we’re starting to see chapel services come back now,” he said. “We might have visitation from 10 to 12 and a service beginning at (noon).” He said chapel services are now back to about 50 percent attendance.
Spry said graveside services are up 75%.
Directors said they are offering refunds or other options to families who prepaid for full funeral services.
“Some of the families want a small (graveside) service now and a large funeral service when more people can gather,” Smith said.
Spry said funeral supplies have been plentiful. “Getting caskets hasn’t been a problem,” he said. “We’ve had some problem getting PPE, but everything is fine again.”
The directors said requests for cremations are steadily rising, but they’re not sure if the trend is related to the pandemic.
“We’re doing between 8% and 10% in cremation business now,” Smith said. “About five years ago, that number was 5%.”
Meanwhile, coroners are experiencing a 10% to 20% increase in calls during the pandemic, especially lately. But they say most are from diseases other than coronavirus.
Lawrence County Coroner Scott Norwood said the extra deaths are keeping him “much busier than last year.”
“I’m seeing a tremendous increase in deaths,” he said. “But I can’t say the number is up because of the coronavirus.”
He said most decedents are older people who might have a chronic disease such as severe diabetes or cardiac issues and COVID-19 could be a factor.
Norwood urged residents to inform first responders if there is an exposure to COVID-19 at the scene.
“This will allow the first responders to gown up and take appropriate precautions,” he said. “When an individual calls 911, inform the dispatcher.”
Morgan Coroner Jeff Chunn said his calls are up “probably 20%.”
“COVID is contributing pretty much to all ages,” he said. “But the majority I’m seeing have diabetes, COPD, heart disease, co-morbid diseases.”
Chunn said he is eager to take the vaccine when it is available to him.
“I’ve seen the results of not having a vaccine,” he said. “The risk of having a side effect is less than getting COVID.”