The Riverine Herald - - FRONT PAGE - By Bray­den May

Tobin Broth­ers Fu­ner­als has been a world leader in deal­ing with COVID-19 deaths, help­ing write the poli­cies and pro­ce­dures first im­ple­mented in China. But no-one, in­clud­ing Echuca’s fu­neral di­rec­tor Sean Green, pic­tured, could have pre­dicted what the pan­demic would do to the in­dus­try and the rest of the world. Bray­den May re­ports,

NOT EVEN death is im­mune to COVID-19.

Fu­neral di­rec­tors across the coun­try have been forced to change how they deal with death.

The COVID-19 pan­demic means fu­ner­als are not like they were in Jan­uary and they might never be again.

Tobin Broth­ers Fu­ner­als have been a world leader in help­ing shape the way for­ward in deal­ing with death.

Most no­tably those who have died be­cause of COVID-19.

James MacLeod, the man­ag­ing di­rec­tor at Tobin Broth­ers, helped write the poli­cies and pro­ce­dures that were first im­ple­mented in China in Jan­uary.

The Chi­nese Fu­neral As­so­ci­a­tion con­tacted Mr MacLeod af­ter he had spo­ken at its con­fer­ence in Wuhan two years ear­lier.

When the first COVID-19 death oc­curred in Vic­to­ria, the Tobin Broth­ers team was ready.

And if re­quired, they can put the pro­ce­dure into ac­tion in Echuca.

“The com­pany felt like it was in a good po­si­tion be­fore the virus even ar­rived on our shores,” Mr MacLeod said.

“We pur­chased a sig­nif­i­cant amount of Per­sonal Pro­tec­tive Equip­ment gear, so we were ready.

“But I don’t think any­one could have been men­tally pre­pared for what was to come.”

And what­ever was to come, Mr MacLeod said the com­pany had a clear plan in place to use mov­ing for­ward.

And it’s one it is still fol­low­ing as Vic­to­ria con­tin­ues to bat­tle the sec­ond wave of the virus.

“From March, we had to change vir­tu­ally all of our pro­ce­dures for all trans­fers of de­ceased from hos­pi­tals and other places where COVID-19 is prom­i­nent, even if the per­son we were trans­port­ing wasn’t a COVID-19 case, be­cause we were go­ing into pos­i­tive zones,” Mr MacLeod said.

“We set up a COVID-19 task­force of peo­ple on ros­ters just to care for COVID-19-pos­i­tive cases.

“These teams were trained and wore full PPE gear when they went to trans­fer the de­ceased into our care. The gear in­cludes scrubs, full body suit, face cov­er­ings, gog­gles, two sets of gloves and gum­boots. All of those items are then dis­posed of ex­cept the boots, which are sani­tised.

“We would trans­fer the de­ceased from the bed, mor­tu­ary or place of death in a zipped body bag and that bag would then be placed in a bio-seal bag which we would med­i­cally seal at the lo­ca­tion we are trans­fer­ring from.

“It would be air­tight, so the virus wasn’t be­ing trans­ferred through hos­pi­tals and aged care fa­cil­i­ties.

“Ev­ery­thing we’ve done is about keep­ing our staff, client fam­i­lies and com­mu­nity safe.”

Tobin Broth­ers has held more than 3500 fu­ner­als across Vic­to­ria and the NSW River­land since the first COVID-19 case was di­ag­nosed in Aus­tralia.

More than 200 of those were for peo­ple who died from the deadly virus.

And or­gan­is­ing ser­vices for a fam­ily’s loved one has be­come much more dif­fi­cult.

“Let’s re­mem­ber ev­ery­thing in deal­ing with a fu­neral — right from when a per­son dies to say­ing the fi­nal good­bye,” Mr MacLeod said.

“Whether it is meet­ing the fam­ily or them com­ing in to spend time with the de­ceased, there is a lot of phys­i­cal con­tact in ev­ery process.

“Be­cause this virus is trans­mit­ted through phys­i­cal con­tact, we needed to re­view and put ap­pro­pri­ate struc­tures in place.

“For ex­am­ple, in March we moved to ar­rang­ing all fu­ner­als in only our branch lo­ca­tions and not go­ing to fam­ily homes. We moved to ar­rang­ing ser­vices via elec­tronic means, in­clud­ing Zoom and FaceTime.

“Two peo­ple have been able to meet. One fu­neral di­rec­tor and a fam­ily mem­ber. We would have other fam­ily mem­bers com­ing in through Zoom.

“It has com­pletely changed the way we do things.”

While the business has had to make plenty of ad­just­ments to its pro­cesses along the way, one of the big­gest changes Tobin Broth­ers has un­der­gone is its view­ing process.

“I met with our se­nior team of em­balmers who are re­spon­si­ble for pre­par­ing the body for view­ing and we drew up a plan about how we could make it work,” Mr MacLeod said.

“They have been in­volved in deal­ing with other dis­eases in­clud­ing AIDS and hep­ati­tis and we also brought in an in­fec­tious con­trol pro­fes­sor.

“We de­cided that any fam­ily mem­bers who de­sired to see their loved ones, we would em­balm them and pre­pare them for view­ing as we would any­one who is not in­fec­tious.

“We have a room which we built some years ago which is a fully locked and sealed fa­cil­ity.

“We em­balm all of the COVID19-pos­i­tive de­ceased in our care in the evening shift. That way there is less ex­po­sure to staff.

“We were find­ing fam­i­lies were com­ing to us be­cause other fu­neral di­rec­tors were say­ing no and, in some cases, they hadn’t seen their loved ones for over a month.

“It was re­ally im­por­tant for clients’ fam­i­lies to have clo­sure.”

Say­ing good­bye to a loved one ar­guably has never been more dif­fi­cult in 2020, as coro­n­avirus has lim­ited the num­ber of peo­ple who can at­tend ser­vices.

At the mo­ment, only 10 peo­ple can at­tend in metro Mel­bourne, while there is a 20-per­son limit in re­gional Vic­to­ria.

... we had to learn to deal with this. We knew the dis­ease was go­ing to be here for a very long time, so we need to learn how to work with it. Tobin Broth­ers man­ag­ing di­rec­tor James MacLeod

But live stream­ing has been a big ad­di­tion to many com­pa­nies.

Although Tobin Broth­ers has been do­ing that for about a decade, ac­cord­ing to Mr MacLeod.

“The big step for us was the scale we are now do­ing it on,” he said.

“Pre­vi­ously we had only been do­ing a hand­ful of live streams a week and it might be for peo­ple who were liv­ing over­seas, for ex­am­ple. It might have meant only a hand­ful of peo­ple were join­ing the we­b­cast.

“Whereas now, each week we are do­ing in ex­cess of 100 live streams right around Vic­to­ria. And we’re go­ing out to hun­dreds and hun­dreds of peo­ple for each ser­vice.

“At times, we’ve had in ex­cess of 1000 peo­ple on one stream.”

While the COVID-19 sit­u­a­tion con­tin­ues to change in Aus­tralia on a daily ba­sis, Mr MacLeod said it was im­por­tant the com­mu­nity re­mained flex­i­ble. Even in death. “The im­por­tant thing is that we had to learn to deal with this,” he said.

“We knew the dis­ease was go­ing to be here for a very long time, so we need to learn how to work with it.

“The prin­ci­ple that we ap­ply for ev­ery per­son who comes into our care is that we treat them as if they are in­fec­tious.

“We are just do­ing ev­ery­thing we can to keep the com­mu­nity safe.”

Photo: Me­gan Fisher

Tobin Broth­ers Fu­ner­als lo­cal di­rec­tor Sean Green.

A Tobin Broth­ers staff mem­ber wear­ing PPE equip­ment.

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