Guidelines from the World Health Organization recognize a risk to workers handling remains from the people who died from hepatitis, tuberculosis, cholera, and Ebola which is the best-known virus that poses an infection risk from corpses.
Now it seems that dead bodies from coronavirus are added to the list after Thailand reported the first case of a medical examiner getting infected and died from handling a coronavirus infected dead patient.
Viral transmission from cadavers to medical examiners
Dead bodies who died from an infectious disease should be handled with care. In a study on Sunday released by the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, it claims that the first fatal case of coronavirus infection and death being transmitted from an infected dead body to a medical examiner is recorded in Thailand.
This new finding adds to the safety concerns for morgue and funeral home workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Study authors Won Sriwijitalai of the RVT Medical Center in Bangkok and Viroj Wiwanitkit of Hainan Medical University in China, said that the procedures used in disinfecting operating rooms may be applied to forensic or pathology units too.
Since it is not a routine practice in Thailand to examine corpses for COVID-19, there is no exact number of COVID-19 infected dead bodies.
Thailand is among the earliest countries that first reported positive cases of COVID-19 outside China with 2,579 cases. The death of the medical examiner is the second of medical personnel in Thailand as of March 20 according to reports.
The researchers said that forensic medicine professionals have a low chance of coming into contact with an infected patient but there is a chance that they can come in contact with biological samples and corpses.
Very little is known about how long the coronavirus stays alive in a dead body or whether cadavers can be contagious to people who handle them.
Extra care for Forensic Medicine personnel
Angelique Corthals, a professor of pathology in funeral homes at CUNY's John Jay College of Criminal Justice says that the morgue technicians and those people who work in funeral homes need to take extra care as it is a real concern.
Reports of temples refusing to perform funeral services prompted Thailand's Department of Medical Services to announce on March 25 that cadavers are not contagious. However, concerns from morgue workers around the world arise after hastily built facilities have been erected to cater to excessive deaths.
Health policy expert Sumer Johnson McGee of the University of New Haven told BuzzFeed News by email that, "anyone coming into contact with a COVID19 positive body, alive or dead should be using personal protective equipment to prevent exposure."
She noted that coroners are increasingly being asked to investigate causes of death for patients who have died and were not even tested to trace contacts with exposed family members, neighbors or coworkers.
She said that autopsies and subsequent investigations pose real risks for morgue workers to acquire the coronavirus. Medical personnel who handle remains of infected patients should also be included in priorities for protective equipment, said Corthals.
"We need to take care of the people who take care of the dead."