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In-Depth: Ohio funeral directors still waiting for a place in COVID-19 vaccine line

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Posted at 5:34 PM, Jan 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-01 12:06:57-05

CLEVELAND — Despite a CDC committee’s recommendations that they are included in the first groups to be vaccinated, those working in Ohio’s death care and funeral services industry are not included in Phase 1A or Phase 1B of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. Under the sheer volume and near-constant exposure to the coronavirus, members of the Ohio Funeral Directors Association said many have reached their breaking point.

Last year, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, a CDC committee, recommended that those working in funeral and crematory services be classified as essential workers eligible as part of Phase 1A of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. Ultimately, it would be up to the individual states, however, to create their vaccine distribution plans. Ohio is one of only a handful of states not to heed the federal recommendations regarding death care workers.

“They’re aware of our challenges and our concerns and they have acknowledged the compelling reasons that we should be included but we have not yet been identified in the phases,” said Melissa Sullivan, the executive director of the Ohio Funeral Directors Association. “We look at this as an oversight. We’re hopeful that Governor DeWine and the administration will recognize that and see the critical need to ensure that funeral directors are protected and allow them to continue to do their job.”

Sullivan said funeral directors and their staff will routinely venture into hospitals and nursing homes to transport a decedent to the funeral home for services or cremation. Additionally, death care workers will often meet with the families and loved ones of the decedent, which often leads to more COVID-19 exposure.

With nearly 11,000 Ohioans dead because of the coronavirus, the small but tight-knit death care industry has continued to operate at low staffing levels because of mandatory quarantining and positive COVID-19 cases. Sullivan said death care workers have a constant worry of getting sick themselves and possibly spreading the virus to their own families.

“It was already a strained group of individuals with limited resources as far as other workers being able to backfill them,” Sullivan said. “We are now at a breaking point with many funeral homes. Funeral directors are in a unique situation where not only are they exposed when they are with the decedent but they are greatly exposed when they are with the families of that individual. That’s why we feel there is such justification for home to have the vaccine.”

Despite advocating for a place in the vaccine line, DeWine’s administration has not included death care workers in the state’s early vaccine rollout. A spokesperson said in a statement did acknowledge that the death care industry and others have made a compelling case.

“While there is a compelling case for this group and many groups to receive the vaccine as soon as possible, there is not enough vaccine supply right now to vaccinate all groups at this time,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “Vaccine eligibility to date has reflected Governor DeWine’s goals of saving as many lives as possible and returning K-12 students to in-person instruction.”

According to Ohio’s vaccine dashboard, more than 682,000 Ohioans have started the vaccination process, amounting to just under 6 percent of the population. Although the vaccine remains in short supply, residents 70 and older will become eligible for the vaccine beginning next week.

Sullivan praised DeWine’s handling of the pandemic and acknowledged the tremendous pressure the state is under to distribute as much of the vaccine as possible as quickly as possible. However, given the risks that those in the death care industry have had to face every day during the pandemic, it is imperative that they be vaccinated soon, Sullivan said.

“I know that the administration has such a burden of trying to determine which population is next in line. They do have the burden. We have so many vaccines and so many individuals that want it,” Sullivan said. “One thing we communicated was that we were not asking for an exception to the rule. We are asking for them to accept and adopt what federal recommendations were because of the high risk of exposure.”