JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Preston McKee sprayed a strong scent onto the hoods of Morris-Baker Funeral Home staff Friday, making sure the N95 respirators he’d obtained for his staff fit and worked properly.

Access to the best possible personal protective equipment will be critical in keeping Morris-Baker’s owner and his small group of licensed workers healthy for what he said is a significant expected uptick in deaths as COVID-19 fatalities mount across the region.

“We have been preparing for an anticipated increase in the number of COVID deaths for awhile, and what we’ve seen is bearing out that expectation. We do expect to see a significant increase in COVID deaths.”

Preston McKee helps Kate Adams make sure her N95 respirator mask fits properly and is working.

Funeral home staff are fairly high up the CDC’s recommended list for early COVID vaccination availability, but that help remains weeks if not months away — and Ballad Health officials have requested that McKee and his industry counterparts be prepared for a much higher-than-normal volume of deaths.

“They wanted to make sure that we were ready – that we had the capacity to take care of their needs,” McKee said. “The concern is related to making sure that funeral homes would be able to facilitate removing people from their facilities. Under normal circumstances the Medical Center doesn’t have a tremendous morgue capacity; they don’t necessarily need it.”

The challenge is the potential of the virus moving through Morris-Baker’s small staff. McKee has two teams of two licensed directors/undertakers, and he’s licensed as well.

Preston McKee

“The requests being made is to help the hospitals not become overwhelmed,” McKee said. “We don’t want funeral homes to become overwhelmed.”

“If we’re operating on say half of our staff and we’re doing twice the work that we’re normally doing then we’re really in crisis mode. In that situation, then the hospitals, they can’t get the response that they need from us.”

McKee said folks from the Northeast Regional Health Department reached out to area funeral homes recently asking if they had adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) to be confident their staff would remain safe.

Morris-Baker hasn’t had any positive cases among its staff, but the percentage of families they’ve served with a COVID-related death rose from 22 percent in October to 32 percent in November. That trend has left McKee wanting as much protection for staff as he can get.

“I’m very very grateful to the health department for the help we have,” he said. “We did identify some needs that we needed, and within two weeks those needs were met.”

So after funeral director/embalmer Kate Adams finished adjusting one of the N95 respirator masks the health department helped McKee find, she draped a hood over her head and shoulders. McKee sprayed a substance through the hood designed to help determine whether the mask’s fit was adequate.

It was a process that would repeat for all the directors/embalmers and part-time funeral assistant staffers like Mark Finucane, who followed Adams.

Reminders of COVID’s presence are ubiquitous at Morris-Baker Funeral Home.

“We work closely, it’s hard for us to not be together in a space to do services and care for families, so it’s really important for us, for our staff to be safe and to be healthy,” McKee said inside a building where the eye could hardly glance without seeing a request not to hug and to use social distancing and masks.

Those are counterintuitive requests in an industry built on empathy and human touch, but McKee said the past couple months have brought home the virus’s deadly impact. Morris-Baker served few families impacted by COVID through the summer and early fall, but all that has changed.

“We had one day where we had three in one overnight period that passed from COVID-19,” McKee said.

McKee said he doesn’t want Morris-Baker or any other area funeral home to experience the overcapacity that some in the Northeast did during the spring surge that spared Northeast Tennessee.

While the role they play may sometimes be overlooked, funeral homes’ important place in the cycle of life, health and death will be very notable if they become overwhelmed.

“We want to avoid that here,” McKee said. “We’re not there now, but if we’re not careful we don’t know what our reality may be.

“This is real. We are seeing families impacted by it on a routine basis, and while the end is in sight, it’s not near and we still need to be serious about this. Because this is not just 90-year-olds that are dying.

“I would just really encourage people to listen to the people from Ballad, listen to the people from the health department and to really be very selective in the activities that they choose to engage in, because this can be a life and death matter.”