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Laurel ice rink used by Md. as makeshift morgue during pandemic

Police guard an entrance to the parking lot at The Gardens Ice House in Laurel, which is being used as a temporary morgue for patients who have died as the result of a COVID-19 infection. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

Police guard an entrance to the parking lot at The Gardens Ice House in Laurel, which is being used as a temporary morgue for patients who have died as the result of a COVID-19 infection. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

LAUREL — In a corner of northern Prince George’s County, two miles from a newly opened medical facility to treat patients infected with COVID-19, is a way station for some who have died — an ice rink.

Before the coronavirus pandemic that has claimed more than 1,000 lives in Maryland, the Gardens Ice House was home to ice skating and hockey leagues, curling clubs and birthday parties. Then, an executive order issued by Gov. Larry Hogan closed it and other similar facilities to try to halt the spread of the virus.

Today, the Gardens Ice House, a five-rink facility including one Olympic- and two NHL-sized rinks,  is leased to a state government agency for a temporary but solemn purpose — storage of the remains of those who have died. The facility appears to receive regular deliveries, including boxes of Maryland flags.

“During the crisis, the state has seen a modest increase in unclaimed bodies, whether due to contact or financial issues, or to help a local funeral home address a capacity issue,” said a state official with knowledge of the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity. “On certain days, there can be a jump because a hospital may request a transport of a number of bodies at once. The state has an alternate center of its own, so a site of this nature is activated to supplement that capacity.”

A spokesman for the state Department of Health would neither confirm nor deny the location of the facility.

“The Maryland Department of Health confirms that there is a temporary Mortuary Affairs Center in the state,” said Charles Gischlar, a spokesman for the health department. “MDH has been asked by the facility and governing county leaders to not disclose the name or location of the facility. The facility is operational and provides a high-level of dignity and respect for the deceased as they await transport to a funeral home or mortuary facility.”

There is a contractual stipulation that the facility not be publicly named, according to Gischlar. 

It is not clear who asked for the stipulation or why.

Similarly, other state and local officials either declined to comment or did not return requests for comment on the facility.

Attempts by phone and email to reach the owners of the ice rink were also unsuccessful. 

Maryland has been planning for an alternate morgue site for at least a month as officials sought to handle the bodies in an orderly way and avoid scenes in other states such as New York.

In New York City, some hospitals were forced to rent refrigerated trailers to store bodies. Officials also reported the discovery of dozens of bodies stored and decomposing in unrefrigerated trucks outside a Brooklyn funeral home.

Health Secretary Robert “Bobby” Neall first discussed Maryland’s plans during a meeting of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents meeting in early April. 

“On the grim side, I leased two skating rinks last week for makeshift morgues, so you know what’s coming,” Neall told the regents. Neall is also a member of the board.

Maryland also requested 15,000 body bags from the federal government but received none, according to federal data released last month.

Gov. Larry Hogan later called stories on the Neall’s statements “false reports” and said the state was looking at one site rather than two and had signed no leases.

Gischlar, following the governor’s comments, confirmed that no leases had been signed but said the health department was looking at two sites.

The establishment of the facility is consistent with advice from the Centers for Disease Control. 

Contracting the virus “is not a concern when handling human remains or performing postmortem procedures. It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads,” according to the CDC.

Prince George’s County accounts for nearly 28% of all confirmed cases of the virus — the most in the state – and roughly 21 percent of all deaths. Combined with neighboring Montgomery County, the region accounts for nearly one of every two confirmed cases and 43% of all deaths.

Remains sent to the ice rink, however, could come from anywhere in Maryland.

The state source said “the geography is not relevant” to the selection of the ice rink as an alternate facility.

The facility in Prince George’s County is operated by the State Anatomy Board, which has at least five employees on site, according to a state official. 

The board is responsible for taking possession of unclaimed remains and finding families. The board typically holds the remains for up to seven days. In cases where families cannot be located or when families are unable to claim a decedent, the board buries the remains. 

“The center works diligently to get those bodies claimed by appropriate people or next of kin so that the decedent can have a proper funeral,” said the state official. “Each decedent is draped with the Maryland flag.” 

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