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(ABC NEWS) —Hic locus est ubi mors gaudet vitae succurrere, is a phrase often inscribed on the walls of morgues and autopsy suites. Roughly translated from Latin it means, “This is the place where death rejoices in teaching the living.”
The National Association of Medical Examiners notes that the “risk of droplet transmission of COVID-19 after death is thought to be minimal,” but possible, since forensic medicine personnel regularly come in contact with corpses and biological fluids.
Although it’s possible to contract COVID-19 from the dead, experts say that precautions already in place will protect medical examiners and health care personnel from harm. Family members should not touch the body of a loved one who dies at home of suspected COVID-19 infection.
The professional society notes “Medical Examiners and Coroners are familiar with handling bodies that have other viral diseases, such as HIV and Hepatitis, diseases that likely pose more risk at autopsy than COVID-19. Funeral Homes routinely handle bodies with known infections of varying kinds as well.”
Most infectious agents do not survive long in the human body after death, according to the World Health Organization. However, WHO also recognizes that workers who routinely handle corpses are at risk of contracting tuberculosis, blood-borne viruses like Ebola, hepatitis and HIV, and gastrointestinal infections like E. coli and typhoid fever.
Medical examiners can never be too sure which infections a corpse may harbor, so they always take universal precautions, and treat all body fluids as infectious. This means wearing protective suits, gloves, goggles, face shields, caps and masks.
“I approach all my cases with universal precautions so in that regard I feel protected to a certain extent,” said Melissa Guzzetta, a medical examiner based in New Jersey. “With COVID, because it is a novel pathogen that we do not fully understand, I think the uncertainty, no matter how small, leaves people with enough anxiety that the majority of offices feel the risk of doing an autopsy outweighs the benefits” when it comes to examining the body of a person who died from COVID-19, she said.
Data regarding the exact number of COVID-19 contaminated corpses is not easy to come by since testing for COVID-19 in dead bodies is not routine. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has specific recommendations for the collection and submission of post-mortem specimens from deceased persons with known or suspected COVID-19.