The Cook County Medical Examiner's Stein Institute at 2121 W. Harrison St.

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CHICAGO — The Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office began operating Thursday morning out of a 66,000-square-foot refrigerated warehouse designed to handle the growing number of those who die from the coronavirus, officials announced.

The “surge center” will have room for more than 2,000 bodies, eclipsing the 285-body capacity of the county’s morgue in the Illinois Medical District. Officials did not disclose the location of the warehouse but said it is in Chicago, about five miles from the morgue.

“While my hope is that we have made plans that we will not have to utilize, I realize that my administration has a responsibility to prepare for a surge in deaths due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said in a statement Thursday. “We are working diligently to ensure that the victims of this virus are treated with dignity while under our care.”

As of Thursday evening, 396 Cook County residents had died due to complications of the coronavirus, according to the medical examiner’s office. More than 150 deaths were reported since Tuesday.

The county’s Department of Emergency Planning and Regional Security, which “managed planning and is coordinating logistics” for the satellite morgue, has also acquired 14 refrigerated trailers and is pursuing another six trailers, which “will be prepositioned at hospitals that are experiencing surges so their morgues are not overwhelmed,” officials said.

The medical examiner’s office is so far able to maintain all its operations with normal staffing levels because autopsies have not been needed for most people who succumb to coronavirus, according to spokesperson Natalia Derevyanny. The office’s work mostly comprises “records review,” which requires staffers to document the cause and manner of death based on hospital records, she said.

Any autopsies performed on coronavirus patients are being conducted in the morgue’s dedicated infectious disease room, which has a negative air pressure system with ventilation separated from the rest of the building, Derevyanny said.

Medical examiners are also asking hospitals to use two body bags for patients who die of the coronavirus, and to disinfect the outside of the bags before they are delivered to the morgue

Derevyanny added that staffers who work near the bodies wear personal protective equipment that is “no different than PPE they use when handling any other deceased.”

Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Ponni Arunkumar has previously overseen training exercises for “mass casualty events” like shootings or explosions, and some of those exercises have helped inform the county’s response to the virus — but the pandemic presents a new challenge, Derevyanny said.

“Having a surge center is not something that had been planned before,” Derevyanny said. “But it was determined to be the best course of action, out of abundance of caution. We want to make sure we have enough space for decedents so they can be treated with dignity and respect.”

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