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Data shows COVID-19 deaths are likely underreported, funeral homes struggle to keep up

Funeral homes are struggling to keep up as people in our region die from COVID-19 at ever-higher rates.

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. — Funeral homes are struggling to keep up as people in East Tennessee die from COVID-19 at ever-higher rates. The data shows more people may be dying from the coronavirus than previously thought.

The number of families Tetrick Funeral Homes served increased by 38 percent from September to December.

“All three of those months, we served more families than any other month in the history of our funeral homes,” President Richard Tetrick said. “It really was all the staff could do to keep up.”

Tetrick said his staff served 14 percent more families overall in 2020.

Staff now must use full hazmat suits to handle the bodies. They’ve considered ordering a morgue truck. 

Funerals are different now too.

More people are shifting to graveside services instead of indoors. In 2019, 62 percent of people had indoor services while 1 percent had a graveside ceremony. In 2020, just 23 percent opted for an indoor service, but 38 percent had a graveside service.

Visitations are down and livestreams are now popular too.

Despite record COVID-19 deaths in our region, CDC data shows it may be undercounted. The CDC recorded more deaths every week since the end of March. Only two-thirds of those excess deaths are confirmed to be COVID-19.

In Tennessee, the number of deaths keeps rising each week.

“It's not just saying that this person who would have been classified as heart disease is now COVID-19. These are actual excess deaths,” said Dr. Randy Wykoff, dean of ETSU's college of public health.

One-seventh of Tetrick's employees contracted the virus, twice the rate of the general public.

Tetrick himself was hospitalized for a month.

“I felt lucky to get out of the hospital alive, just to be honest about it,” he said.

Other staff members weren't as lucky. Three have died from COVID-19.

“This man had passed away from COVID-19. His son went to the cemetery. He didn't know he had COVID-19. He gave it to the lady at the cemetery, and they all three died,” Tetrick said.

As hard as it has been for his staff, Tetrick said he worries about health care workers more after what he saw when he was in a COVID-19 unit.

“I really think they're going to have some mental damage,” he said. “It's going to be extremely hard on them. It's been hard on our staff, but compared to what's happening in the hospitals and the nursing homes, that's really hard.”

Tetrick thinks the worst may be yet to come.

This story was originally reported by WCYB.