Newton County to use CARES funds to bring in mobile morgue

Lee Ann Murphy

On Tuesday, Newton County Presiding Commissioner Bill Reiboldt announced that the county will be using money allocated from the federal CARES Act to put a mobile morgue in place, probably by Thanksgiving.

"We need to be prepared in the county for any kind of emergency that may come up," Reiboldt said. "The hospitals here (Neosho, Joplin, regionally) have said there's a potential problem. Our hospitals are full and that has built up to this. This is what we've chosen to do. We need to be ready.

Reiboldt stated that both the Newton County Coroner, Dale Owen and the Jasper County Coroner Rob Chappell, have been working together with each other and with Newton County to find a solution to the growing issue.

The morgue is a refrigerated unit paid for with CARES money, which are funds designated by the government through the The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Reiboldt said the county has considered something like this before and stated that it can be utilized not only for COVID-19 deaths but also for flu deaths or deaths from a natural disaster such as a tornado.

"Area facilities are full," Reiboldt noted. "They don't have space and they have to provide services as soon as possible. Right now, COVID related deaths are at 6-7 a day in the immediate are. In November, natural deaths are over 100 in Newton County."

He also stated that often natural deaths increase around the holidays and with Thanksgiving next week, there's an urgency about finding a solution to the potential problem.

"We respect the dead," he said. "We're kind and sensitive about this in a legal way - this is all about helping our friends and neighbors when we can."

Reiboldt also stated that the regional hospitals are full but that all patients are not from this corner of southwest Missouri. Some patients come from Oklahoma and Kansas, a few from Arkansas. When a death occurs, it's necessary to prepare the hospital rooms for another patient and to make space in a morgue for storage. Hospitals are already full and some patients have been diverted to other medical facilities in the region.

The amount of CARES funds spent will be posted on the Newton County website once details are final.

He said that both coroners have been excellent to work with and with both Freeman Health Systems and Mercy Hospital have collaborated on a response to the need.

"I wish this pandemic was over and that we could get back to celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas with our families," Reiboldt said, echoing the sentiments of many. "This is a sad time."