Want to learn how to control infection? Ask a funeral director. Keeping the illnesses of the dead from infecting the living is what they do.
"We've been dealing with big, bad viruses and bugs and infections as long as we've been in business," said Marya Gibbons, whose Elmhurst location of Gibbons Funeral Home has been open since 1960. "That's the nature of the funeral business."
While some funeral facilities are stocked with gloves, masks, face shields, coveralls and related gear for the long haul, others have found their traditional supply chains deep in back-order territory.
This could be hazardous, as handling the body of someone who has died from COVID-19, while following "universal precautions," requires a mask, eye protection, gloves and a full-body coverall or jumpsuit.
Daniel and Joy Symonds of Symonds-Madison Funeral Home in Elgin have some gear including at least a couple of jumpsuits, but they spent hours calling and emailing their usual suppliers of PPE seeking more. The lack of response prompted Joy to look for other options.
She jumped on a video call with state Sen. Don DeWitte, a St. Charles Republican, to let him know of the growing PPE supply desert for funeral homes. She then found encouragement from the Kane County Health Department, which indicated it could assist with some supplies, like hospital-grade N95 masks.
"We're just trying to make sure everything we do keeps our families safe, keeps our workers safe and keeps us safe," she said.
The Symondses have restricted one of their funeral directors, a man in his 80s, from any work that would bring him near someone who had the infection.
John Glueckert Jr. of Glueckert Funeral Home in Arlington Heights has split his staff into two teams, so if one employee gets the coronavirus, members of that team can self-isolate to prevent further spread, but the other team can continue helping families with funerals.
Glueckert handled its first COVID-19 death the week of March 23. The staff has remained healthy, and the business has adequate masks and protective gear.
"Our danger isn't so much in the handling of the remains. ... Our potential for exposure is contracting the illness ... from the living," he said.
The business is practicing social distancing, using video conferences to plan arrangements and even setting up a drive-through for families to sign documents.
Kolssak Funeral Home in Wheeling is taking the drive-through idea one step further. Relatives and friends staying inside their vehicles can drive past the building, pull up close to view the deceased and "visually pay respects to the family," owner and Funeral Director Jon Kolssak said. The practice brings some "humanity" to the grieving process at a time when the coronavirus has taken away the personal embrace, he said.
How to best support the grieving process of virus victims' families is the biggest worry for funeral homes that are well-stocked with PPE.
"My day-to-day concern really is about how do we provide the best possible service we can for these poor families," Gibbons said.