March 20, 2020
As a regulator, we have responsibilities to all our stakeholders, which includes delivering on certain services. We also believe that it’s important to be especially thoughtful and caring during this time. Sometimes those two things can seem at odds with each other – managing our business and following the law with being compassionate towards the needs of our licensed businesses. We are trying to balance those things to the best of our ability during this difficult and changing time. We ask for your patience and your trust while we navigate these waters.
We understand how important it is for your business to be able to continue operating in a time of social distancing or possible quarantine. To support you, we want to share some information with you.
Essential or critical service designation
We have heard from our industry stakeholders that being designated by government as an “essential service” could assist with your ability to operate as well as obtain personal protective equipment for you and your staff. While such a designation is ultimately the responsibility of government alone, we have been raising industry’s concerns and the possibility of designation during our regular touch points with government. We will continue to keep our government colleagues apprised of the issues you are dealing with and will keep you updated, as appropriate.
Emergency measures legislation
The Solicitor General has declared a state of provincial emergency. This allows the province to enact any provincial emergency measures needed to respond or lessen the impact of an emergency, including securing the critical supply chains and exercise extraordinary powers over the maintenance and coordination of emergency medical, welfare and other essential services. These powers supersede all other Acts during this time and should health and funeral sector capabilities be overwhelmed, may result in extraordinary measures in the form of legislation to provide for specialized handling, storage and/or burial of human remains, issuance of death certificates and burial permits.
In these circumstances, the Chief Coroner, together with the Provincial Health Officer and Chief Executive Officer of the Vital Statistics Agency, may direct changes to normal documentation and processing to facilitate a rapid burial where there is a reasonable presumptive cause of death and no identification issues. They can also authorize the use of mass graves and direct the establishment of community body collection locations.
We are closely tracking this situation and are engaged with government daily. We will continue to provide updates as we learn more.
Supply of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE)
We understand that all PPE is being directed to health care workers and there is some concern within the sector that not enough PPE will be available for funeral service professionals in a crisis. We are currently tracking this issue, which we have raised with government. Should government designate the funeral service sector as a critical service, this may assist in obtaining more PPE. In the meantime, we ask funeral professionals to be conservative with their current supplies of PPE and only use PPE when needed.
Changing funeral practices due to social distancing
The Province of British Columbia declared a state of emergency. All gatherings are now restricted to 50 people, and many businesses and organizations have been ordered to close including schools, bars, and restaurants except for takeout or delivery. These restrictions are aimed at slowing the spread of the virus.
We recommend that you discuss concerns and options with the families you serve. You may find that consumers will make the choice for you and opt for lower risk alternatives, such as direct cremation and celebration, deferring the funeral, staggering or splitting the visitation, and video conferencing. Those communities that regularly require visitation or viewing as part of their cultural funeral rites or ceremonies need to be informed of how best to support social distancing at this time.
Remember, guests attending your funeral home should practice:
- Social distancing: put a 2-metre distance between others
- Hand hygiene: keep soap dispensers filled in all washrooms. Have hand sanitizer readily available at all entrance points
- Cough/sneeze etiquette: cover coughs and sneeze into your elbow. Have extra tissues readily available
- Post reminders of how to prevent being infected: wash or sanitize hands often, put a 2-metre distance between others, stay home if sick, cover coughs and sneezes
- Clean and disinfect surfaces frequently and meticulously: tabletops, mobile phones, keyboards, landlines, nametags, commonly touched surfaces such as light switches, countertops, chair arms, railings, doorknobs, and handles
We recommend that you try not to delay disposition and avoid storing the deceased longer than needed. Instead, delay the celebration of life or other services but move forward with disposition whenever possible.
Am I or my staff at increased risk working in a funeral establishment?
Consumer Protection BC is monitoring information from various health sources. There is no known evidence of post-mortem spread of the virus to date. There is no known risk associated with being in the same room with the body of someone who has died of COVID-19. That said, it is important to take the same precautions you would normally take in the practice of your profession.
If meeting with families, use a spacious area for the meeting; have guests keep a spare chair between them; use phone, email or video as alternatives to a physical meeting, and e-signature applications, such as DocuSign, to sign paperwork.
There is no reason not to prepare a COVID-19 decedent as long as you follow your routine precautions. Information form health sources to date have indicated that COVID-19 is spread by droplet and contact. It is not principally an airborne virus. Therefore, ensuring routine droplet barrier precautions, environmental hygiene, and overall sound infection prevention is the best way to keep you and your employees safe.
Remember, there are many infectious sources that can stay alive on a surface that could hurt you (such as hepatitis). You should always take precautions as if every person is a carrier of something and be diligent about wearing personal protective equipment (PPE). You should be wearing N95 masks when embalming, otherwise that type of mask isn’t required.
Do I have to self-isolate if I prepare a body that has COVID-19?
Similar to a healthcare worker, there should be no reason to self-isolate if you have followed the precautions that you’ve been trained to do. However, the current guidance from public health officials is to self-isolate if you have any symptoms of COVID-19.
What if the family wants to delay a funeral, what should I do about storing the deceased?
Consumer Protection BC has released an updated policy related to the storage and refrigeration of human remains. Please visit this page for more information. If the deceased needs to be stored and refrigeration isn’t available.it may be necessary to add additional temporary refrigeration or embalm to preserve the remains prior to disposition.
Regulatory compliance and legal issues
Funeral providers must continue to follow all laws and regulations. It is advised to be aware of this especially with the potential for reduced staffing, and employee fatigue. Please contact us if there are issues needing clarification, and we will provide advice.
Control of disposition
Part 3(5) of the Cremation, Interment and Funeral Services Act (CIFSA) provides that a funeral provider must not provide funeral services unless the funeral provider has received written authorization from the person who has the right to control the disposition of the human remains. The CIFSA also permits telephone authorization from that person to begin funeral services, but disposition of the human remains requires the written authorization. In a pandemic emergency, contacting the correct person may prove more difficult than normal which could delay cremation or burial. Note that Section 8 (3) (b) of the Cremation, Interment and Funeral Services Act provides that a medical health officer may order a cemetery, mausoleum and crematorium to dispose of human remains under the Health Act. A medical health officer may order a change to normal procedures to allow cremation within 48 hours of death.
It is possible that some families may choose to transport bodies of family members. Families need to be aware that Section 3 of the Cremation, Interment and Funeral Services Regulation provides restrictions on the movement of human remains and the persons authorized to do so.
Other than licensed funeral directors, employees of licensed funeral providers and persons under the direction of a licensed funeral director, any other persons transferring remains must be acting under a permit issued by a director under the Business Practices and Consumer Protection Act.
Such persons must also transfer the remains in a manner that prevents the remains from causing a hazard to the health of any person and requires a rigid, closable container of sufficient strength and construction. Even if a family is transporting remains under such a permit, they should always still carry a completed burial permit with them.
We are consistently monitoring and reassessing the impact of this pandemic and we will let you know of any updates as quickly as we can.