Over 641,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the United States as of Sept. 1, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Since the start of the pandemic in early 2020, VERIFY readers have had a lot of questions about how the virus spreads, including whether the bodies of people who died of COVID-19 could continue to spread the disease after they passed.
In April 2020, two Thai scientists published an article claiming a medical examiner caught COVID-19 from a dead, infected body. A few weeks after the article was published, the scientists issued a correction, saying they could not confirm the virus was transmitted from a corpse.
Now that there is more information about COVID-19 transmission, the VERIFY team asked medical experts if it’s possible for a dead body to transmit the disease.
Can a dead body transmit COVID-19?
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- Dr. James Gill, President of the National Association of Medical Examiners
- Dr. Saralyn Mark, Spokesperson for the American Medical Women's Association for COVID-19
Yes, a dead body could transmit COVID-19, but the risk is low.
WHAT WE FOUND
According to the CDC, there is currently no known risk associated with being in the same room at a funeral or visitation service with the body of someone who died of COVID-19. However, the public health agency does say people should avoid touching the body of someone who has died of COVID-19 before the body is prepared for viewing.
“After the body has been prepared for viewing, there may be less of a chance of the virus spreading from certain types of touching, such as holding the hand or hugging. But you should avoid other activities, such as kissing, washing, and shrouding before and during body preparation,” the CDC said.
Dr. James Gill, the president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, told VERIFY that there is a long history of public fear about exposure to dead bodies in epidemics and pandemics, but he says concerns about COVID-19 transmission between the dead and living persons are mostly unwarranted.
“In certain epidemics, there are valid concerns about transmission from decedents (dead bodies),” said Dr. Gill. “The risk for droplet transmission of COVID-19 after death is minimal.”
Dr. Saralyn Mark, the spokesperson for the American Medical Women's Association for COVID-19, adds, “This virus is transmissible through the respiratory system. It's aerosolized and it's through droplets. When the deceased are prepared for burial, morticians are wearing PPE.”
“We're more concerned at this point by individuals who are spreading the virus in closed environments by talking, breathing, coughing and sneezing. That's where I think we need to focus more of our concerns,” said Dr. Mark.
According to the CDC, the risk of transmission of COVID-19 from human remains outside of the autopsy setting is low. Dr. Gill says medical examiners, coroners, and funeral homes routinely handle bodies that have viral diseases, such as HIV and Hepatitis, which are diseases that he says pose more risk at autopsy than COVID-19.
“The CDC suggests no restrictions for burying those that die of COVID-19,” said Dr. Gill.
On its website, the CDC shared interim guidance for medical examiners, coroners and funeral homes on how to handle dead bodies with confirmed or suspected COVID-19. The guidance is based on what is currently known about COVID-19, including how the virus spreads; however, according to a study published on the CDC's website, data on postmortem stability and infectivity are lacking.
Editor's Note: This story has been corrected to reflect the study, "Postmortem Stability of SARS-CoV-2 in Nasopharyngeal Mucosa" was published in the CDC’s Emerging Infectious Diseases (EID) journal, but the article was not written by CDC authors.