Funeral officials hope to get on vaccine priority list as COVID-19 deaths climb

“Lets face it, most of the deaths that are happening are in the nursing homes and we have to go there to pick up the deceased, so we’re coming into COVID territory,” said John Schachtel, president of the Saskatchewan Funeral Service Association.

Funeral home director says there is a '100 per cent' chance death-care workers will be exposed to virus

Members of the Saskatchewan Patient Transfer Service can be seen outside of Extendicare Parkside in Regina on Sunday. There have been 18 deaths related to COVID-19 at the care home to date. (Cory Herperger/CBC )

They're the last — and all too often forgotten — link in the health-care chain, and now funeral home directors and staff feel like they've been left out of the priority line for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Over the last month, the number of COVID-19 deaths in Saskatchewan has climbed by more than 200 per cent, with 89 deaths recorded up to Dec. 13 compared to 29 deaths 30 days earlier — an increase of 60, which is the equivalent of two deaths a day.

Now, more and more people who died as a result of the virus will be brought to the preparation tables and crematoriums of death-care workers across the province, putting them at a greater risk of exposure to the virus.

Capacity available to accommodate rise in deaths 

Funeral homes aren't dealing with capacity issues at this time, but the pandemic has taken its toll, says John Schachtel, the president of the Saskatchewan Funeral Service Association, which advocates for licensed death-care workers.

"Some of our staff, it's wearing on them emotionally," he said. 

Schachtel said while the beginning of the pandemic started off slow in terms of deaths from COVID-19, in the last month, things have changed.

"It has escalated to where we're getting five, six deaths a day sometimes," he said, noting many of the deaths are occurring in long-term care facilities.

Schachtel explained while funeral home staff and death-care workers are doing everything they can to support those who are bereaved, they are dealing with bodies who have carried the COVID-19 virus and comforting family members who may have interacted with that person while they were alive.

Considering the increased risk, Schachtel says he hopes the government of Saskatchewan and the Ministry of Health ensure they're part of the Phase 1 rollout of the vaccine, set to start in late December.

"Lets face it, most of the deaths that are happening are in the nursing homes, and we have to go there to pick up the deceased, so we're coming into COVID territory," he said. "We have to be ready, just like the health-care workers do that are caring for these seniors in their care homes.

"Even though we have the PPE, I think we have to be on the same page as all of those care aides and all of those working in nursing homes, because that's where the deaths are happening, and there's going to be more." 

As of Dec. 13, a total of 89 people have died after they contracted the COVID-19 virus in Saskatchewan. Funeral home managers and death care workers in the province say while they're not worried about capacity at this time, they want to be considered to get the COVID-19 vaccine alongisde other priority workers and individuals in the city. (Government of Saskatchewan)

Currently in Saskatchewan, government has formed a multi-agency steering committee to provide "logistical oversight and strategic direction" of the vaccine, which includes administration. 

CBC Saskatoon reached out to the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) and the Ministry of Health for a comment on Schachtel's request, but a response was not received by deadline.

One of the long-term care homes that's been hit hardest by the pandemic is Extendicare Parkside in Regina. Eighteen people who contracted the COVID-19 virus in the home have died, and the facility has since been taken under co-management by the SHA. 

Death-care staff still supporting families despite tight restrictions

Increased measures have been put into in place at the Regina Funeral Home to protect funeral staff and clients who are using the service, said Jeff Weafer, who is managing director of the home and chairperson of the Funeral and Cremation Services Council of Saskatchewan.

Staff are working in cohorts, and arrangements for funeral services are made through video conferences and other types of technology, Weafer said, and despite the changes, their main aim has not wavered.

"We do whatever it takes to ensure that families are well cared for and their family members are honoured and they can mourn that loss and celebrate that life," he said. 

He says through lobbying efforts by provincial and national bodies, death-care workers were eventually added to the list of essential workers who could access federal and provincial supplies of PPE, which was critical early on when access was an issue.

He hopes death care-staff are given similar access to the COVID-19 vaccine. 

"We certainly would be hoping that the provincial government and Sask. Health would recognize that there's a 100 per cent chance that funeral professionals in our province are going to come into contact, be exposed to the COVID virus at some point," he said. "Whether it's through the deceased or whether it's through family members who may have been exposed." 

It's not clear how long SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, survives on human tissue and whether it can be transmitted from the dead to the living. The Public Health Agency of Canada has said the virus can remain infectious on different surfaces for varying amounts of time.

Weafer said funeral homes have not become a major transmission point for the COVID-19 virus and he says this is due to the fact those in the industry have been following strict guidelines from the province.

Even though the death rate in the province is climbing, he said, those in the profession are ready, as they've been watching what's happening in other provinces closely. 

"In some ways, we've had a number of months to prepare for the potential of a second wave, so we really feel that we have all of the protections and systems in place to ensure that families will be cared for through this very challenging time," he said. 

"Yes, we have seen an increase recently in deaths in our province attributed to COVID-19, but it's nothing the professionals throughout the province are not prepared to handle." 

Funeral home managers ready for vaccine

For some funeral home managers — such as Denton Keating with Tubman Funeral Homes and Valley Crematorium, which serves the communities of Wolseley, Kipling, Indian Head and Fort Qu'Appelle — things are getting busy.

He wasn't willing to share how many bodies he's prepared as a result of a COVID-19 death but said outbreaks at care homes in the community of Indian Head have resulted in a significant increase for the home. They're not dealing with any capacity issues as a result of the increase, he said, but the last month has been hard.

"The greatest difference is the family comes to us and they ask: 'What can we do,'" said Keating.

He said funeral home directors have to provide accurate information on restrictions, which can sometimes change quickly.

"The restrictions create a hardship for families in that community support is now greatly diminished," he said. "You can't have receptions afterwards. Families can't gather together they could prior to this pandemic." 

Keating, who has worked in the industry for almost five decades, says this has been hard as he's a firm believer these rituals are critical in helping a family heal and mourn the loss of a loved one.

"It's hard on us that we can't help families to the best of our ability, and it's hard to be the messenger of the bad news," he said. "And also on a personal note, we have our own fears." 

Denton Keating, manager of Tubman Funeral Homes, which serves the communities of Wolseley, Kipling, Indian Head and Fort Qu'Appelle, says he's ready to get the vaccine as soon as it's available. (Supplied by Denton Keating)

He says the COVID-19 pandemic is like nothing he's experienced before. 

"Our experience has gone through HIV, SARS, but nothing like this," Keating said. "Nothing where the community support had to be set aside. This is most unique in my lifetime, and I would hope when it ends, that it will never come back."

Keating said if funeral home and death care staff were given priority for the upcoming vaccines, he'd be sure to get in line. 

"I'm quite prepared to roll up my sleeve," he said. "I haven't polled the staff here, but anything that's going to protect us, protect our families and protect the families who come to see us in their time of need, I'm all for it."

Barb Konstantynowicz, president of the Saskatchewan Medical Association, offered kudos to the province's funeral services, saying they've done a good job caring for families as they go through the pandemic and she hopes they're not left out of the grouping for priority doses.

"They have shown tremendous resilience and kindness to many families during this very difficult time where we don't mourn, or grieve, or celebrate the lives of those that are near and dear to us in ways that we're used to doing," she said.

"They have been very professional and very kind to many families and I would trust that the subcommittee would look at that very closely."