On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Over 1,000 D.C. residents have died from COVID-19. The D.C. morgue can hold 205 people. So early in March a decision was made to create a temporary, but secret morgue. And that secret morgue on a D.C. Government parking lot in Southwest became the place where all Coronavirus deaths have gone through from March until the end of the first wave in June.
So, what was the morgue like, why was it kept a secret, and why is it no longer a secret?
Washingtonian Senior Writer Luke Mullins will take us inside D.C.’s secret Covid morgue.
Produced by Kurt Gardinier
- Luke Mullins Senior writer, Washingtonian; @lmullinsdc
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll look at the struggle for vaccine equity in this region. But first, over 1,000 D.C. residents have now died from COVID-19. The D.C. morgue can only hold 205 people. So early last March, a decision was made to create an additional temporary morgue at a D.C. government parking lot in Southwest. Every person, who died of COVID-19 in the District from April through June came through this morgue.
KOJO NNAMDIIf you're wondering why you haven't heard about it that's because D.C. officials decided to keep it a secret. Workers there were instructed to not even tell their families where the morgue was located. Why did this morgue exist and why keep it a secret from the public and the families of the deceased? Joining me to discuss this is Luke Mullins. He is a Senior Writer with the Washingtonian magazine who broke the story. Luke Mullins, thank you for joining us.
LUKE MULLINSThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDILuke, let's start with why D.C. decided to build this morgue in the first place. What was the reasoning behind it?
MULLINSYeah. It was really an issue of capacity. You know, we had projections of a lot of COVID fatalities and the city morgue in Southwest also has to continue accommodating the non-COVID fatalities that are happening in D.C. And then we're going to have this additional wave. So they wanted a place to be able to process the fatalities.
MULLINSAlso D.C. -- the leaders of this effort at the D.C. Medical Examiner's Office made the decision that they were going to take jurisdiction of every single COVID fatality, which is different than the way a lot of other jurisdictions handled it. And the reason for that was because they had seen what had happened in New York where morgues were sort of -- hospitals were allowed to sort of, you know, process the fatalities in their own morgues. And they quickly became overwhelmed. So after seeing that happen, the leader, Mr. Mitchell, Dr. Harvin said, hey, we need to go ahead and create our own morgue to prevent against that type of debacle.
NNAMDIWhere was this morgue and how was the location chosen?
MULLINSSo the morgue -- it was inside the city. And it was chosen -- there was three components. They needed it to be a city owned land. And it needed to be big enough where they could move their equipment. There was a lot of sort of heavy duty tractor trailers and equipment like that that was used to store and process the bodies. And then also they were looking for a site that could be discrete that you could sort of drive past it and not really see it. And also that it could be secured. And, in fact, the site that was used was, you know, a parking lot in city -- city-owned parking lot that had a fence around it. It was a chain link fence. And they ended up kind of putting some black tarp around it. And then, you know, there were armed guards outside of it also.
NNAMDIIs the morgue still there today?
MULLINSIt is there. It's what they call a worm site right now. Meaning it is not being used because the fatality case load is not at a level that it was in the spring that is sort of, you know, necessitating its use. But they can have that up and running in just a couple of days. A lot of the equipment is still there. You know, they check it regularly to make sure.
NNAMDIBut why keep this makeshift morgue officially called the COVID Disaster Morgue, why keep it a secret?
MULLINSYeah. There's a number of reasons. One, the leaders of this effort are experts in this field, which is known as mass fatality management. And through other efforts they found that these types of facilities can sort of trigger kind of a macabre curiosity and they can be sort of gathering sites for, you know, gawkers and people like that. They didn't want that. Two, they worried that news footage could upset the family members. They didn't want -- so there was a sensitivity issue as well.
MULLINSBut also there was a, you know, just a more political component that they didn't want additional scrutiny because the stakes were really high here. In these types of events, you know, mistakes can be made. And, you know, a body can be released to the wrong family, which would have been really politically devastating for the city. So they were looking for as little public scrutiny as possible. And I should note that they didn't make any of those mistakes. But, you know, the political stakes were pretty high.
NNAMDIThis secret morgue began operating in April. Deaths from COVID were rising and there was a lot of fear with so much unknown about the virus. Was it difficult for the officials running the morgue to find people to do this kind of grim and risky work?
MULLINSYeah, it was difficult. Dr. Harvin, who was the leader -- the executive of the effort, you know, he described it as a coalition of the willing. They were -- the city had been prepared for this for the past four or five years. Both Dr. Harvin and the former Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Roger Mitchell, were really experts in mass fatality management. Dr. Harvin was at 911, and both Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Harvin were both at Sandy Hook. When they came to Washington one of their initiatives was to create this mass fatality management program preparing for something, you know, similar to this.
MULLINSSo they've been drilling and preparing for this for a while. And part of that is creating partnerships with other agencies both local and federal to put themselves in place for finding volunteers. But yeah, this was -- you know, they had volunteers from -- they went through the Trade Association for the National Funerals Director Association, they sent over funeral directors from as far away as Illinois. There were -- the Army was involved both active duty and reserve. And the D.C.'s Medical Reserve Corp was also providing volunteers. There was some students. UDC pre-med students that were there as well.
NNAMDIYes, they had to find people who were willing to do this grim and risky work. Is it true that some of the workers and volunteers at the morgue had never touched or even seen a dead body before?
MULLINSThat is true. You know, some of the Army reservists had never -- this is mortuary work. So they had some people with mortuary experience, but also people without that experience. So it was really important for the leaders both Kim Lasseter who was a top executive there along with Dr. Harvin to train these people to treat the fatalities as they would their own family. And they took tremendous pride in that and were -- took great care. The goal was to provide dignity to -- in death to the hundreds and now a 1,000 people that we lost in this city to COVID.
NNAMDIThis secret morgue was opened with prayers from members of the clergy Christian, Jewish and Muslim. Why did city officials ask them to come to the secret morgue? And were they too sworn to secrecy?
MULLINSSo, yeah, Dr. Mitchell who was the Chief Medical Examiner is also a reverend. And for a number of reasons they thought it was important. One was to have this multi faith community actually see the facility and make sure there was nothing that they were doing that was going to sort of violate any of the tenants of their faith. They also thought it was important to have -- sort of this was going to be sacred grounds. There were going to be hundreds of our neighbors were going to pass through there. And at the same time they wanted to provide some solace to the staff that was working there under these very difficult conditions that was going to be both physically and emotionally very challenging.
NNAMDIThis morgue remains secret from the time it was created in April until your story was released on Monday. How did you find out about it? And why did D.C. officials decide to open up to you?
MULLINSSo I was looking for -- I wanted to write a story that could get at sort of the scope of this tragedy. You know, it's very different than other mass tragedies where there are sort of one specific event where you have loss of life. We're having deaths -- thousands of deaths a day. And we've sort of become numb to it. So I wanted to get at, you know, the scope of that. And I assumed that there was someone in the government who had to account for the loss of life, and I thought they would have a powerful perspective.
MULLINSSo ended up talking to the Chief Medical Examiner's Office, and so I started this probably six months ago, and just talking with a number of a couple of folks there. And, you know, I think they were -- I think they told me because they were proud of what they had done. You know, I think that's just sort of what it came down to.
NNAMDITalk about Donell Harvin, one of the people you refer to as the first responders you never see, the ones who go where the tragedy and mass deaths occur.
MULLINSYeah. He is a remarkable guy. He grew up -- he's a native New Yorker. And, you know, has really been present, respondent to sort of the darkest times in all of American history. He responded to the Twin Towers twice when it was bombed in '93 and then again in 2001 as a paramedic. He went on to become an academic and he has two Master's degrees and a PhD. And he ended up becoming an expert in this field of mass fatality management. And he comes to Washington along with Dr. Mitchell and they really help build out this ...
NNAMDIOnly have a couple of minutes left.
NNAMDIBut Donell Harvin would always give a speech to the new workers and volunteers. Could you, please, read some of what he told those workers when they first arrived?
MULLINSYeah, when he comes in he gives them this pep talk. He describes it as, "There's not going to be a parade for you guys. You're not going to be discounts or big thank you signs. The work we do, we do in silence. Not even the family members of the victims will know what we've done. There's a pride in that. There's a silent pride in that. You're taking care of someone's grandmother, grandfather, husband, daughter, son and that's a higher calling. It's a heavy burden, but the world is watching whether they see us or not."
NNAMDIYou know, another key player in this story is Kim Lasseter. Can you take maybe 30 seconds to talk about her?
MULLINSSure. Kim Lasseter is a local Washingtonian. She's from Prince George's County, has spent 25 years at the Chief Medical Examiner's Office, is now, you know, one of the veterans there and has spent her whole life tending to death victims. And as part of this specific effort, she was sort of the kind of on the ground day to day leader, really hands on and, you know, took incredible care to make sure ...
NNAMDIAll I have to say is you have to read Luke Mullins's story in the Washingtonian, because you've gotten a lot of reactions to this story. And I'm pretty sure that people who read it will also react. Luke Mullins thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIWe have received a statement from the Bowser administration expressing its pride in the work of those who worked and volunteered at what we've been calling the secret morgue. We also want to take this moment to express our condolences to the mayor who yesterday lost her eldest sibling, Mercia Bowser to COVID-19. Got to take a short break, proud of those workers at the morgue. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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