The horror of the coronavirus pandemic took an especially macabre turn on Sunday afternoon when a Ford pickup truck pulled up behind the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office with five or six bagged bodies stacked in its open cargo bed.

The driver got out, spoke briefly to a medical examiner’s employee who seemed unnerved by the delivery, and then climbed onto the cargo bed, walking on bodies that initially had been covered by mats, according to an Inquirer photographer who was working near the site in University City.

He pulled the bodies by their feet to the edge of the truck bed. The remains were offloaded one at a time onto gurneys and wheeled up a ramp into a refrigerated trailer. The unidentified driver wore torn jeans, a blue jacket, and a dark blue cap.

The Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed that a transfer of human remains from a local hospital had arrived in “an unapproved manner.”

“It is absolutely counter to existing and longstanding Medical Examiner’s Office’s normal transfer protocols,” said Communications Director James Garrow, “and the transferring hospital was strongly reminded of those protocols.”

He declined to identify the hospital. But scrawled in black marker on two of the white body bags were the words “Albert Einstein Medical” and “Einstein Med Center.”

In response to questions, a spokesperson for Einstein Healthcare Network, which operates Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia, issued a statement late Monday saying it was demanding an immediate update on pandemic protocols from its transportation contractor. Like other hospitals in the region, Einstein contracts with a funeral home to handle the transfer of remains to the Medical Examiner’s Office. The pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for hospitals, the statement said.

“We deeply apologize," the statement said, "and are making every effort to ensure we continue to provide the respectful, compassionate care that we are known for.”

It was about 3:30 p.m. when the dark blue Ford F-150 XLT arrived in the rear of the Joseph W. Spellman Medical Examiner Building on University Avenue. That’s where city officials have placed three refrigerated trailers, bought to relieve the overcrowding occurring at hospitals and funeral homes as deaths soar from COVID-19.

In Philadelphia, more than 9,200 people have been infected and at least 365 have died. Each of the trailers can hold up to 40 bodies.

Garrow said he did not know and would not know if all or any of the people in the truck had died of COVID-19. Because the remains were sent for overflow storage, the office does not necessarily have jurisdiction to conduct investigations, he said.

The trailers were not purchased exclusively to hold COVID-19 fatalities, according to Garrow and Deana Gamble, a spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney. Rather, they provide additional holding space, as funeral homes exhaust their capacity and families need more time to make arrangements.

For instance, executives at the Mercy Fitzgerald hospital campus in Darby Borough have secured a refrigerated truck that currently holds about 20 bodies.

In normal times, said Gregory McDonald, dean of the School of Health Sciences at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and the deputy coroner of Montgomery County, the body of someone who dies in a hospital or care home would be released to a funeral home. Remains would be sent to a medical examiner or coroner for investigation only in cases of unnatural death, such as suicide, homicide, or accident, he said.

The pickup truck arrives, with bodies under the mats in the cargo bed, at a space near the Joseph W. Spellman Medical Examiner Building in University City.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
The pickup truck arrives, with bodies under the mats in the cargo bed, at a space near the Joseph W. Spellman Medical Examiner Building in University City.

A Philadelphia city official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter, said local hospitals sometimes contract with transportation services to move bodies to the morgue. City workers from the Department of Licenses and Inspections have been diverted to the morgue to help unload remains, the official said.

On Monday, it was clear that driving bodies across city streets in a pickup truck did not accord proper respect and dignity to the dead. But World Health Organization guidance indicates that the incident posed no public health risk.

Cadavers do not transmit disease, except in limited, particular circumstances during an autopsy, the agency advised last month. There’s no evidence of someone becoming infected from exposure to the bodies of people who died from COVID-19, the agency said.

At the same time, COVID-19 has shaken and altered the way that Americans die — and how survivors mourn and say goodbye.

New York City, an epicenter of the outbreak, has begun burying unclaimed remains in mass graves. Everywhere, funeral services have had to be postponed because of the danger of people gathering in crowds.

Garrow said the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office releases no information about remains being held in storage.

“This was an expected transfer, meaning staff at the Medical Examiner’s Office knew to prepare to receive a transfer,” he said. “Upon receipt, MEO staff ensured the bodies were safe and not damaged from the transit and transferred them into storage. … Out of respect for the dead, the MEO’s policy is to not release information about, or a census on, bodies sent to the morgue for storage.”

Staff writer Ellie Rushing contributed to this article.