NYC Is Preparing Temporary Burial Sites For Coronavirus Victims

With the bodies of coronavirus victims threatening to overwhelm New York City’s hospitals and morgues, preparations have begun for the “temporary interment” of caskets in trenches in local parks, NYC Council Health Committee chair Mark Levine announced in a tweet on Monday.
"Soon we'll start 'temporary interment.' This likely will be done by using a NYC park for burials (yes you read that right)," Levine wrote. "It will be done in a dignified, orderly--and temporary--manner. But it will be tough for NYers to take."
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The temporary burials are part of a contingency plan that is being put into place as the city’s healthcare system is “being pushed to the limit.” This is happening in an effort to keep up with a growing number of coronavirus casualties, Levine wrote, with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) struggling daily to keep up with what he described as “the equivalent of an ongoing 9/11.”
To cope with the sheer volume of deaths, the city has sent some 80 refrigerated trailers to local hospitals, each of which has the capacity to house 100 bodies, according to Levine's thread. But, now those trailers are mostly full too, and some hospitals have had to adopt a second or even third trailer in order to accommodate the dead.
According to the New York Times, under normal circumstances, an average of about 158 people die every day in New York City from a multitude of causes; currently, health systems are seeing that number of deaths each day from the coronavirus alone. This could result in sometimes double or triple the number of deaths and bodies to be accounted for. The result has been a bottleneck of bodies across the city’s systems that hospitals, funeral homes, and cemeteries have struggled to keep up with.
“When you overwhelm the health system, you also overwhelm the death system,” Patrick J. Kearns, a funeral director in Queens, told the Times.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly appealed to the federal government for help in recent weeks as the state has exploded into what experts have deemed the “epicenter” of the COVID-19 pandemic. As of April 6, there had been over 122,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus in New York, and more than 4,000 deaths as a result of the virus. As the outbreak has worsened, both Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio have warned that overloaded hospitals and a critical shortage of vital emergency equipment, including ventilators, could exacerbate a crisis that has already become dire.
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New York City has had a contingency plan in place for a pandemic-like mass death event since at least 2008, when the city published a 93-page document titled “Pandemic Influenza Surge Plan for In- and Out-of-Hospital Deaths,” that envisioned what would happen if 50,000 people were to die from a single outbreak over the course of just two months.
Sending in the refrigerated mobile units marked the commencement of “Tier One” of the plan, and the city has seemingly made preparations for Tier Two, which involves commissioning prisoners from Rikers Island to help dig mass graves for the dead on Hart Island in the Bronx. The final phase of the plan — “temporary interment” — is the one being described by Levine on Twitter.
“Ten bodies in caskets are placed lengthwise in a long narrow section in the ground,” the plan reads, according to the New York Times. “The foot end of one casket is placed in close proximity to the head end of the next.”
After Levine's comments, Freddi Goldstein, mayor de Blasio's press secretary, said that temporary interment would not actually happen in parks, but it is being considered.
Levine said that city officials were going to need to prepare for makeshift burial plots, but stressed that the plan would not have to be implemented if the death rate dropped significantly enough. The councilman’s office did not immediately return requests for comment about which city parks would be impacted if the “temporary interments” were to take place.
"As New York City continues to appeal to the nation for help, we need to ask not just for doctors and nurses and respiratory therapists. We also need mortuary affairs staff. This is tough to talk about and maybe tough to ask for. But we have no choice. The stakes are too high," he wrote. Levine later clarified the measures that will be taken and when, saying, "This is a contingency NYC is preparing for BUT if the death rate drops enough it will not be necessary."
Refinery29 reached out to Mark Levine for comment. We will update this story when we know more.
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