Coronavirus pandemic forces funeral directors on the front line

Posted at 5:54 PM, Apr 27, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-27 21:51:58-04

HAMPTON, Va. - As more funeral home workers are finding themselves on the front lines, one local funeral director is questioning federal regulations that could be putting them at risk.

Tim Smith runs R Hayden Smith Funeral Home in Hampton. The funeral director is putting himself on the line to collect remains from hospitals.

"I’ve never walked into the door of the hospital and have a guy hand me a mask first and say, 'Don’t come in here without wearing this,'" Smith said.

Smith said when he walks into some hospitals to transport a body, he’s doesn’t know if he’s dealing with a confirmed positive or negative COVID case.

"They will use a tag coding system - yellow tag, red tag, whatever - but no, they don’t actually give you that information," he said.

According to Smith, HIPAA laws prevent hospital workers from releasing patient information. It’s a way to protect patients, but he says it doesn’t necessarily protect funeral home personnel.

"The concern about COVID is the question about how long it’s active on a hard surface," he said.

Smith said he knows he’s transported at least five people who have contracted the virus – only finding out through family members who have called to warn him.

With the uncertainty surrounding the highly-contagious COVID-19, Smith fears he could pass it on to his loved ones.

Related: Funeral homes, mourners adapt to honoring loved ones during social distancing

"Any contact you have, you're taking it home to your family," he said. "We’re all still having to meet with people to make funeral arrangements. We’re all still going to the grocery store."

A spokesperson for Sentara Healthcare told News 3 they have a policy in place to let funeral directors know if a patient has a transmittable disease, such as COVID, but Smith said this is not the case at other area hospitals.

News 3 has reached out to the Virginia Health Department for clarification on HIPAA laws impacting funeral homes, and we are waiting to hear back.

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