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Cremation Limits Lifted In LA Due To 'Backlog' As COVID-19 Deaths Skyrocket

In Los Angeles County, an environmental regulator has temporarily relaxed limits on the number of cremations that can be performed each month, citing a backlog caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District said in a press release Sunday that it is suspending certain permit conditions for crematoriums at the request of the county's medical-examiner coroner and public health department. Crematorium permits typically carry limits based on potential air quality impacts, but can be suspended during a state of emergency.

"The current rate of death is more than double that of pre-pandemic years, leading to hospitals, funeral homes, and crematoriums exceeding capacity without the ability to process the backlog of cases," officials said.

The emergency order, which took effect on Jan. 17, lasts for ten days but can be extended if needed.

As of Jan. 15, more than 2,700 bodies were being stored at hospitals and the coroner's office, according to the order. It adds that the county's 28 crematoriums have the "resources and capability" to perform more cremations than regulatory limits allow.

"The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health has confirmed that the growing backlog of cremation cases within the county constitutes a threat to public health," it reads.

Los Angeles has been particularly hard-hit by COVID-19 cases in recent months, despite overlapping stay-at-home orders from the state, county and city. The surge has further strained a healthcare system stressed by shrinking intensive care unit bed capacity and medical staff availability.

The county officially crossed the threshold of 1 million total COVID-19 cases on Jan. 16. That same day, public health officials announced its first confirmed case of the more transmissible coronavirus variant, though said they believed it was already spreading in the community.

"The presence of the U.K. variant in Los Angeles County is troubling, as our healthcare system is already severely strained with more than 7,500 people currently hospitalized," Director of Public Health Barbara Ferrer said in a press release. "Our community is bearing the brunt of the winter surge, experiencing huge numbers of cases, hospitalizations and deaths, five-times what we experienced over the summer."

Beyond the already-skyrocketing number of deaths, the emergency order notes that the coroner's office is anticipating another surge associated with New Year's Eve, since deaths generally lag four to six weeks behind gatherings.

On Monday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, California became the first state to surpass 3 million total cases.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.
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