New York City setting up mobile morgues to deal with growing COVID-19 casualties

NEW YORK: With coronavirus cases in New York, the epicentre of the pandemic in the US, continuing to surge, the city is setting up mobile morgues to deal with the corpses as hospitals and funeral homes begin to be overwhelmed by the growing number of casualties.

“When you overwhelm the health system, you also overwhelm the death system,” Patrick J Kearns, a funeral director who operates three funeral homes in the New York City area, said in an article in The New York Times.

As of April 1, there were 45,707 COVID-19 cases, 9,775 hospitalizations and 1,374 deaths in New York City, which has set up 45 new mobile morgues to handle the growing number of corpses.

“In the past few days, the city’s medical examiner’s office has taken over the collection of bodies, dispatching the fleet of new refrigerated trailers to hospitals in all five boroughs, some of whose morgues have already filled up. Funeral homes are becoming backed up. And, running on smaller staffs, cemeteries and crematories are scrambling to keep up with demand,” the NYT said, adding that nursing staff at some places is running out of body bags.

A spokeswoman for the city’s medical examiner’s office, Aja Worthy-Davis, said that the office has purchased the 45 mobile morgues to boost its capacity to handle about 3,500 bodies. Another 85 of the refrigerated units are expected to be delivered soon by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Thomas Von Essen, the agency’s regional administrator, said the US Department of Defense has agreed to send 42 mortuary affairs officers to help the medical examiner’s office to run the mobile morgues.

The New York Air National Guard has also sent a 12-person team to help control the flow of bodies from the hospitals, Worthy-Davis said.

The mobile units – refrigerated trailers equipped with shelves to store remains in plastic body bags – have already been put to use in places like Brookdale Hospital in Brooklyn. One doctor there said the flow of bodies passing through was “like a conveyor belt.”

City officials are working hard to stave off an emergency in such a scenario and so far the longstanding system for picking up and disposing of bodies in New York has not completely broken down.

The city is not at an immediate risk for a secondary health crisis with corpses stacked in churches or lying in the streets, as has been the case in some Italian cities, the report added.

“But at every step of the process — from hospitals to funeral homes to city-run morgues — people are feeling the strain of the sharp increase in deaths and acknowledge that it is only a prelude of the flood that is sure to come.”

Joe Aievoli, who owns six funeral homes in Brooklyn and Manhattan, said most of the hospitals’ morgues only have room for eight to 12 bodies but they are now being inundated with 30-50 deaths within a short period of time. “They just don’t have the capacity to store.”

Mike Lanotte, who runs the New York State Funeral Directors Association, said a “bottleneck” in taking care of the deceased had occurred because some cemeteries have started to reduce their staffs and hours in response to the pandemic and have scaled back on the number of bodies they are burying in a day.

“What we’re trying to avoid is the catastrophic situation where we have a backlog,” Lanotte said.

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