Refrigerated shipping containers are on standby as makeshift morgues if there is a surge in coronavirus deaths in New Zealand.
New Zealand Police, along with the Ministry of Health, have made the "precautionary and pre-emptive" preparations in the worse-case event that permanent hospital morgues across the country are overwhelmed.
Behind-closed-doors talks between Covid-19 response leaders have been planning how they will store bodies given that the latest modelling provided to the Ministry of Health says 14,000 could die if the virus spreads out of control in New Zealand – and potentially as many as 27,600 in another modelled scenario.
All of the DHBs contacted by the Herald today referred inquiries around the makeshift morgues to the Ministry of Health and NZ Police "who are co-ordinating preparation".
The National Crisis Management Centre (NCMC), below ground in the Beehive, and used by agencies during emergency events to co-ordinate the all-of-Government response, also passed on enquiries to the Ministry of Health.
A police spokeswoman this afternoon said they are leading work alongside partner agencies in Government and the private sector to "plan for what may be required should the Covid-19 pandemic result in mass fatalities in New Zealand".
"This is a highly complex area, which has so far involved preliminary work to understand what level of response may be needed in line with current modelling, including what storage facilities may be required and where. At this stage planning does not include the use of commercial facilities," she said.
"Police cannot repeat this enough – stay at home and save lives. We are all in this together and we all have a role to play to keep New Zealanders safe."
Container companies have been approached by health officials to gauge what refrigerated units they could supply – and how many.
It's believed that dozens of cold storage units have been identified and will be brought in if required.
One container industry source confirmed that district health boards have been making "speculative" inquiries in recent days into leasing refrigerated containers with three-phase power supplies, or "reefers" as they are colloquially known.
"We've been seeing those sorts of requests - 'if there was a need, what could you supply'," he said.
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The chief executive of Global group Titan Containers, which has an office in Pukekohe, responded to Herald enquiries with a statement, saying a tragic result of the pandemic is that "morgues continue to reach and exceed full capacity".
"Everyone in Titan Containers is enormously saddened at the loss of life the pandemic is causing around the world. We are honoured and humbled by the faith placed in us by governments and health institutions across all affected regions," said Layland Barker.
"We will continue to work closely to support our partners in any way we can, namely those in hospitals and the healthcare sector who are working so intensely hard to save lives. The continued care after death until a time where the funeral can proceed is an integral ingredient in the dignity deserved, and correctly expected, by society. These are extreme times."
Barker believes there is no risk for the future use of the same containers for food storage.
"All units currently on hire for any purpose relating to Covid-19 will naturally be completely cleansed and sterilised before their return to the Titan ArcticStore fleet when we have collectively beaten the virus," he said.
"Only authorised institutions such as hospitals have the ability and knowledge to perform a sterilised deep clean which will be required and we are working closely with our partners to ensure all expectations are met before, during and after any hire term concludes, no matter the circumstances."
Royal Wolf, the largest domestic operator within Australasia in dry and refrigerated containers, who last month helped build a drive-through coronavirus testing station for one of Australia's regional hospitals, refused to comment.
The versatile, transportable shipping container is often utilised in post-disaster environments and were ubiquitous after the Christchurch quakes, being used to prop up damaged buildings, house stopgap offices, and even create a shopping mall. Temporary morgues were also set up in Canterbury, including one at Burnham Military Camp, after the February 22, 2011, quake that killed 185 people.
New Zealand has had 797 coronavirus cases, but just one death – that of 73-year-old West Coast woman Anne Guenole.
New Zealand's Chief Coroner, Judge Deborah Marshall, said last month that "should the worst happen", the Coroners Court is prepared.
In New York, where the coronavirus death toll nears 1400, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is sending 85 refrigerated trucks to serve as temporary morgues.
Brooklyn Hospital Centre is already loading coronavirus victims' bodies into refrigerated trailers, explaining that the "unprecedented crisis calls for extraordinary measures".
New York City's medical examiner's office has also launched a makeshift morgue, as it did after the 9/11 terror attacks.
And in the UK, which has more than 29,000 confirmed cases and 2352 deaths, temporary morgues are being built at an ice rink, council depot, and industrial sites, to cope with an expected rise in coronavirus deaths.