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COVID-19 patient remains may be contagious, coroner’s case reveals

10:00 | 17/04/2020

A forensic practitioner working in Bangkok, Thailand, most likely caught the virus from a deceased patient, later died of the virus, indicating that coronavirus could be contagious even after death, a new report published April 11 in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine finds.

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Bodies of COVID-19 victims are moved to a refrigerated truck serving as a temporary morgue at Wyckoff Hospital in Brooklyn, New York, on April 6, 2020. (Photo: Getty Images)

The death marks the first case on record of a "COVID-19 infection and death among medical personnel in a forensic medicine unit," the researchers wrote in the report.

At the time the report was written on March 19, just 272 people in Thailand — including the forensic practitioner and a nurse assistant — had tested positive for the new coronavirus. Most of these cases were imported, meaning they weren't from community spread, the researchers wrote. So, it's unlikely that the forensic practitioner caught the new coronavirus outside of work or even from a patient at the hospital, according to the researchers.

"There is a low chance of forensic medicine professionals coming into contact with infected patients, but they can have contact with biological samples and corpses," the researchers wrote in the report.

It's not surprising that the body of a recently deceased COVID-19 patient might be contagious, said Dr. Otto Yang, a professor in the Department of Medicine and the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

"Absolutely, a dead body would be contagious at least for hours if not days," Yang told Live Science in an email. "The virus will still be in respiratory secretions, and potentially still reproducing in cells that haven't yet died in the lungs."

Morgue workers expressed concern over makeshift centers in handling excessive COVID-19 cases

COVID-19's longevity in the body can be problematic for people in the funerary industry. For instance, following reports that temples in Thailand were refusing to perform funeral services of COVID-19 victims, the head of Thailand's Department of Medical Services incorrectly announced on March 25 that the disease was not contagious in bodies after death, according to Buzzfeed News.

It's unclear, however, just how long the virus remains infectious in a dead body.

Morgue workers worldwide raised issues as unexpectedly established centers had been built to handle excessive deaths.

Health policy expert Summer Johnson McGee of the University of New Haven said coroners are asked to examine the cause of death for patients not tested for COVID-19.

As efforts increase for temporary mass burials and makeshift morgues, Corthals said employees handling with people's remains need to be included in priorities for protective equipment.

"Anyone coming into contact with a COVID19 positive body, alive or dead, should be using personal protective equipment to prevent exposure," McGee told BuzzFeed News.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said the safety and well-being of everyone who tends to bodies should be the first priority, Tech Times reported.

"Before attending to a body, people How should ensure that the necessary hand hygiene and personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies are available," the health agency added.

covid 19 patient remains may be contagious coroners case reveals
How long coronavirus can survive in dead body remains unclear (Photo: Wiki)

Usually, pathogens that kill people don't survive long enough to spread to others after the person's death, according to WHO. "Human remains only pose a substantial risk to health in a few special cases, such as deaths from cholera or haemorrhagic fevers," such as Ebola, the WHO said.

Other illnesses that are contagious in human remains include tuberculosis, bloodborne viruses (such as hepatitis B and C and HIV) and gastrointestinal infections (including E. coli, hepatitis A, Salmonella infection and typhoid fever), Live Science cited WHO’s guidance.

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