Funeral homes in Langley and across the province are facing a potential shortage of personal protective equipment even as they have to transport and prepare for burial those who may have died of the coronavirus.
Ian Elliott of Langley’s Arbutus Funeral Services knows the difficulties of holding a funeral in a time of physical distancing.
His firm isn’t holding indoor funerals, with graveside services for a few people the only option for many right now.
But the work funeral homes provide behind the scenes is becoming increasingly difficult because of a worry about running out of PPE.
When someone dies in a hospital or care home, it’s funeral homes that undertake transport and get the bodies of the deceased to the funeral, the grave site, or a crematorium.
It’s unknown if there’s any danger of contracting COVID-19 from a deceased person, so there’s no way of knowing if it’s safe to handle them. And because PPE is almost entirely disposable, users go through it quickly.
“Hospital professionals are your first line of defence,” said Elliott. “Funeral professionals are your last line of defence.”
Workers are worried about possible exposure to COVID-19 in the course of their duties.
“My suppliers who I deal with, they supply all my masks and gloves, they are completely out of the N95 masks, any other masks, the face shields,” said Elliott.
Even simple items like hand sanitizer are either hard to find or have shot up in price, he said.
Funeral professionals were listed by the B.C. government among groups that need PPE to do their jobs – but Elliott said they were located on page four of the list, near the bottom.
It isn’t just a problem for Arbutus or other small, local firms.
“Our profession, right across Canada and the U.S. for that matter, PPE is hard to come by for sure,” said Jason Everden, president of the B.C. Funeral Association.
He said it’s big, international firms as well as the family-owned funeral homes facing the crunch.
The funeral supply firms that sold equipment, including PPE, to most chains and funeral homes, ran out of PPE early on in the crisis. Other PPE suppliers started limiting orders.
“And then, everyone was out,” he said.
“They’ve got less than three months supply, on average,” Everden said of funeral homes in B.C.
The association managed to get some PPE for its members by going through dental suppliers, who were sitting on some gloves and other items after dentists shut their doors.
What PPE is available is now often doubling in cost, with prices still volatile.
Everden acknowledges that doctors and nurses need the PPE first.
“But we also need it to protect our staff.”