There's been a lot of attention recently surrounding what's been reported in Thailand as the first case of a person getting COVID-19 from a dead body.
It has some people asking if catching the disease from deceased people is possible. The answer is complicated.
Are the bodies of those who have died as a result of COVID-19 still contagious?
The World Health Organization has stated current evidence does not suggest COVID-19 transmits from cadavers to people, but stresses caution in handling the dead.
The organization's recommendations on handling the dead are interim, meaning they could change as new evidence becomes available.
The basic guidance from the CDC indicates that bodies don't transmit the virus the same way a living person might - through respiratory drops. They show that being in the same room as a body, isn't likely to cause someone else to get infected.
But, they do say that the virus can survive within a body and that people should avoid touching a body.
WHAT WE FOUND
The WHO released interim guidance on March 24 covering safe management of a dead body in the context of COVID-19.
A few things stand out in their guidance.
Current evidence suggests COVID-19 spreads through droplets and close contact and is not airborne. Dead bodies are generally not infectious except in the cases of a few diseases, and only the lungs are infectious in the case of pandemic influenza.
After noting that, the WHO guidance states, “The dignity of the dead, their cultural and religious traditions, and their families should be respected and protected throughout.” The guidance then goes over things to be cautious about and avoid while doing this.
It stresses that people viewing a body at a funeral should not touch or kiss the body and someone preparing the body should not kiss it. A person preparing or handling the body should wear gloves. They should also wear personal protective equipment like masks or face shields if there is a chance they may come in contact with fluids from the body.
The WHO also stresses that everyone should wash their hands. A visitor should do so before and after viewing a body. A person preparing the body should do so before and after they handle it.
The guidance states that a body doesn’t have to be cremated. The National Funeral Directors’ Association said the CDC has given them similar instructions for handling COVID-19 victims: they should be buried or cremated according to the family’s preferences. The group noted that state and local laws regarding this may vary.
The CDC covers funerals in their COVID-19 FAQ page. They say there is currently no risk with being in the same room at a funeral or visitation service with a body of a COVID-19 victim, but visitors should avoid touching the body of a victim.
The CDC has noted instances where a person attending a funeral has spread COVID-19 to other funeral visitors. Therefore, people should limit the size of funerals and continue to practice social distancing as they would at any other place.
One last thing to note: the WHO guidance says “there is no evidence of persons having become infected from exposure to the bodies of persons who died from COVID-19.” That information may already be out of date, however.
A forensic medical practitioner -- someone who works with dead bodies -- in Thailand reportedly became infected with COVID-19 and died in March. It’s suspected that he would have gotten the disease from a body because there was very limited community transmission in Thailand at the time and it would have been unlikely he met a living person with the virus. These findings were published in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine on April 11.
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