Hospital gets mobile morgue as COVID deaths surge in southeastern North Carolina

By Sarah Nagem

The hospital in Robeson County has set up a mobile morgue to handle the increasing number of patients dying from COVID-19, the medical center’s top leader said Saturday. 

The morgue inside the hospital was full, Joann Anderson, president and chief executive of UNC Health Southeastern in Lumberton, said Saturday in an emotional Facebook post in which she said she is “frustrated like never before.” 

“We had to have it delivered and placed onsite at the hospital because we have had so many deaths from COVID in such a short period of time,” Anderson wrote of the mobile morgue. “We were left with no choice. This is so sad (and) so senseless in many cases.”  

Robeson County, which has the lowest vaccination rate in North Carolina at 29%, has seen at least 35 COVID deaths this month, according to the local health department. 

That’s the highest number of COVID deaths in the county since January, according to data from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. 

UNC Health Southeastern had 57 COVID patients – the highest number so far during the pandemic that started in early 2020, Anderson said Saturday. 

“The ICU is still full, the designated COVID unit is full,” she wrote. “The ER is holding patients until a bed opens up by discharge to home or possibly to the mobile morgue.” 

UNC Health Southeastern isn’t alone in its struggle. Hospitals across the state, in rural and urban areas, are filling up as the delta variant spreads.  

North Carolina “hit a pandemic high” on Thursday with 912 adults in intensive care units, DHHS said. 

“The number of COVID-19 patients on ventilators also reached a record high at 574,” according to the agency. 

Some Robeson County leaders, including the chairman of the Lumbee Native American tribe, are encouraging people to get the COVID vaccine. But hesitancy and distrust of the government are still major barriers in this rural county that is home to about 117,000 people. 

“I beg you” to take COVID seriously, Anderson pleaded. “Help us help you. Help my team do their jobs. My team is exhausted yet they come back because they care.” 

Vaccinations have been climbing for weeks in North Carolina. More than 139,000 vaccinations were administered the week of Aug. 16, compared to fewer than 83,000 the week of July 5, data shows. 

In a report released Thursday, DHHS said unvaccinated people in North Carolina were about 15 times more likely to to die from COVID-19 during the four weeks leading up to Aug. 21.

“The public has to be a part of the solution,” Anderson wrote. “Don’t just listen to social media, politicians or others outside the medical field. You have trusted us in the past. Why are we not being trusted now?” 

Correction: A previous version of this story said the mobile morgue was full. But it was not full, according to UNC Health Southeastern. The morgue inside the hospital was full.

Photo by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash