The Natrona County Coroner's Office has not been overwhelmed by the recent surge in deaths from COVID-19, but it has back-up plans if the pandemic gets out of control, Coroner James Whipps said Friday.

Those plans are harsh, and he hopes he doesn't need to implement them.

For the most part, Whipps has been spared from having to deal with the rising number of deaths, he said.

As of Thursday, there have been 176 COVID-19 deaths statewide, with 36 of those in Natrona County, according to the Wyoming Department of Health.

Whipps said COVID is somewhat different from other infectious diseases in that it is not as hazardous or dangerous after death as it is while a person is alive and breathing.

Tom Morton, Townsquare Media
James Whipps; Tom Morton, Townsquare Media

Nearly all COVID deaths have occurred in a hospital or long-term care facility, so the coroner is not needed to investigate like he would if a COVID death occurred with a person alone in a private residence, Whipps said. "I'm really kind of on the outside looking in; it doesn't affect me."

But only to a point.

Besides the Wyoming Medical Center, the funeral homes are greatly affected, he said.

If they are overwhelmed with bodies, the coroner's office becomes an overflow facility, Whipps said. "That's really only been minor."

However, his office has a back-up plan for body storage overflow arranged with public health officials, the hospital and the funeral homes, he said.

The coroner's office, 6550 Wildcat Road, east of Casper has the capacity to store up to 16 bodies, Whipps said. He also has a portable morgue to handle six to eight bodies. He has not had to order a refrigerated truck for mass-casualty events, but Fremont and Carbon counties have them and Natrona County has access to them if needed, he said.

There is another back-up plan, and it is extreme.

If the rise in deaths rapidly escalates, he and the Natrona County Health Officer have the authority to issue a "direct burial or cremation order."

That means the families would no longer have a choice about what happens next after a death, Whipps said. "We've gotten to the point where it's so overwhelming that we have to literally skip embalming and all that kind of stuff and services and go directly to put them in the ground or cremation."

That hasn't happened yet, he said. "It's on the radar if we need it."

The coroner's office also has the emergency powers authority, if this extreme need were to arise, to take control of a refrigeration trucks belonging to a business, Whipps said. "I don't think we'll ever get to that point."

He repeated what other public and health care officials have been emphasizing for months: wear masks, maintain social distancing, wash hands.

"The whole purpose of any of these restrictions that get put in place and everything is really to keep the health care system from getting overloaded," Whipps said.

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