Refrigerated trucks used to store and transport food are fulfilling dual purposes as they provide space for bodies amid the coronavirus pandemic, fueling questions about sanitation and respect for the dead.
But what happens when the trucks are no longer needed to do the grueling job?
They can go right back to their old one — even if blood or other bodily fluids leaked inside in some cases, according to “guidance” released this week by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
It is not clear if bodies stored in trucks are solely coronavirus victims.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, additional refrigerated storage is needed for human remains,” the eight-page document said, emphasizing that the guidance is a recommendation, not a requirement.
“Refrigerated food transport vehicles and refrigerated food storage units used for the temporary preservation of human remains during the COVID-19 pandemic subsequently can be safely used for food transport and food storage under certain circumstances.”
These conditions, although basic in that they require proper cleaning and disinfection, are also unique.
Trucks in which blood or bodily fluids have come into contact with “porous unfinished wood,” cracked fiberglass, exposed seams or portions of refrigeration machinery that cannot be removed for cleaning should not be returned to food storage, the FDA said in the document.
If the truck continues to have “offensive odors” even after the cleaning and disinfecting process, then it should not be put back to work, the department said.
If not properly cleaned and disinfected, workers handling bodies and any food stored in the truck can become contaminated with blood or bodily fluids such as saliva that could not only carry SARS-CoV-2 — the pathogen behind the pandemic — but also other viruses such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV, according to the United Kingdoms’ National Health Service.
The FDA said the floors, ceilings and walls on the inside of refrigerated trucks “are generally designed to be easily cleaned,” and should be disinfected with “EPA-registered disinfectants effective against SARS-CoV-2.”
The disinfectants should also be used according to EPA instructions, such as “maintaining the required wetted contact time,” with some trucks needing repeated cleanings to ensure food and human safety, the guidance said.
The temperature of the truck matters, too, the FDA noted, because some disinfectants may not be able to kill viruses and bacteria under certain cold conditions.
Requests to the FDA about returning refrigerated trucks to their original purpose signal that hospitals, morgues and funeral homes are slowly being able to keep up with the demand as the coronavirus continues to spread.
But grim scenes like those of forklifts propping bodies into trucks will remain with the public, one emergency room doctor said in a Washington Post column.
“Every disaster has its images, its symbols,” Dr. Jeremy Rose of Manhattan’s Mount Sinai Beth Israel said. “For COVID-19, it might just be the refrigerator truck. It’s our overflow morgue, holding the patients we could not save.”
More than 4.3 million confirmed cases of the coronavirus have been reported worldwide, along with about 299,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. That includes just under 1.4 million confirmed cases in the U.S. and more than 84,000 deaths.