The Whanganui District Health Board's plan for mass fatalities in the event of a serious Covid-19 outbreak includes measures from storing bodies in refrigerated shipping containers to utilising the Defence Force for security purposes.
Released to the Chronicle under the Official Information Act, the DHB's 37-page plan details the extent of the preparation undertaken in expectation of widespread community transmission in the region.
The plan was developed in April last year and is still in use by the DHB, having most recently been updated last month.
According to the plan, Whanganui Hospital's permanent morgue has space for three corpses.
To cope with a possible surge in Covid deaths, under advice from the Ministry of Health, the DHB hired four refrigerated shipping containers last year - three for the storage of corpses and one for the storage of medical equipment.
Those shipping containers were placed on the grounds of Whanganui Hospital, near Te Awhina Acute Mental Health Facility.
The DHB contracted a local engineering company to design makeshift shelving to hold the bodies of the deceased in the chiller.
According to the planning document, the authority to activate the temporary morgue sits with Whanganui's Civil Defence Emergency Operations Controller.
That power is likely to fall to Whanganui District Council's chief emergency management officer Tim Crowe.
The "trigger point" for activating the makeshift morgue requires that the capacity of the city's mortuary facilities, including the DHB and private funeral homes, has been reached.
Once activated, the site is to be blessed by a local kaumātua, before staff move in to set up the facility.
Oversight of the mortuary would be in the hands of local police, with private security contractors and the Defence Force also expected to assist.
Fences are to be constructed, CCTV cameras installed and a secure area designated to store the belongings of the deceased, such as jewellery and other valuable items.
"Whanganui DHB is responsible for the security of the facilities involved in the temporary mortuary, while the NZ Police are responsible for the overall security of the site - this may be provided by NZ Police, New Zealand Defence Force or private security agencies," the planning document states.
The plans also give consideration to security threats of the mortuary, including grieving whānau unable to visit their loved ones due to lockdown restrictions.
The chillers were required to be connected to the main power network, but also emergency generators should the main power feed be disconnected.
The use of shipping containers as mortuaries was commonplace overseas during the height of the pandemic, utilised in countries such as Thailand and Malaysia.
The extent to which the containers would be used in a vaccinated world is not covered in the plan.
How to plan for the worst-case scenario
Whanganui Civil Defence Controller Tim Crowe said the document was a result of work by the DHB and Civil Defence, looking at what would happen in a worst-case scenario outbreak.
"We were involved in the support with the DHB's planning, and we went through worst-case scenarios. It was very medically slanted and based around our national pandemic plans.
"You start looking at worst-case scenarios and prepare for those, then work your way backwards."
Crowe said Civil Defence and the DHB started work on matters such as mass fatality planning as soon as the deadly nature of the virus became clear.
"It was clear fairly early on what the potential was. The thing with pandemics is there is a great unknown in the early stages," Crowe said.
"The concern with Covid was the distinctive lag with people getting infected, people getting sick and people getting really sick."
Crowe said the work of the DHB putting together the contingency planning should be commended.
"If you don't plan for your worst-case scenario ahead of time, it becomes very difficult to get things like refrigerated containers and other bits and pieces in place."
Whanganui DHB acting chief executive Graham Dyer said the plans were initiated in the early stages of the outbreak.
"The hiring of facilities like shipping containers were part of the DHB's contingency planning if the spread put us in a position where additional facilities were required," Dyer said.
"We're all very lucky it didn't get to that point, and we hope it never will."