New Yorkers Dead From Virus Could Be Interred in Park Trenches

Ambulances line the street outside Elmhurst Hospital Center in Queens on Saturday. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

MANHATTAN (CN) — Unless its death rate drops in time, New York City will build trenches in public parks as makeshift burial spots for those killed by Covid-19, a city official revealed Monday.

Morgues are overwhelmed, and funeral homes and cemeteries cannot handle the number of requests, according to a Monday morning tweet by Mark Levine, chairman of the New York City Council’s health committee.

“Soon we’ll start ‘temporary interment,’” Levine wrote. “This likely will be done by using a NYC park for burials (yes you read that right). Trenches will be dug for 10 caskets in a line. It will be done in a dignified, orderly — and temporary — manner. But it will be tough for NYers to take.”

Two hours after he made the disturbing revelation, Levine elaborated that the plan for trenches is a contingency for which the city is preparing. “BUT if the death rate drops enough it will not be necessary,” Levine wrote (emphasis in original).

Officials tried Monday to muffle the alarm from Levine’s tweet, but Nancy Berlinger at the Hastings Center, a nonpartisan bioethics research institute, called it good public health policy to hope for the best but plan for the worst.

“It’s actually wrong to wait for a crisis, and then kind of scramble and try to figure out what you’re going to do,” Berlinger said in a phone interview Monday. “You can see why. If you know that a hurricane is coming or a flood is coming, and you waited until it arrived, many lives could be lost. And so you plan, you forecast. … That’s where you hear people talk about contingencies.”

Levine’s tweets sent shockwaves around the country still grappling with the first images released last week of hospitals that have been under siege using forklifts to move body bags into refrigerated container trucks.

A spokeswoman for the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner emphasized in a phone interview Monday afternoon that no one is breaking ground, so to speak, on any trenches.

“There’s no plan to use city parks right now to do temporary burials,” said Aja Worthy-Davis, executive director for public affairs at the M.E.’s Office.

“That is consistent with our disaster plan … as is utilizing select city parks,” she said. “I suspect the councilmember was citing our surge plan.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio refused to offer detail on the temporary burial plans. 

“This topic is something that a lot of folks in the media want to ask me about; I’m just going to draw a hard line on this one,” he said, speaking Monday at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where design and manufacturing company Crye Precision and women’s wear brand Lafayette 148 are producing surgical gowns for health care workers.

The Hastings Center’s Berlinger noted that New York City has used temporary morgues before, most recently in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy or the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

“That’s a public health strategy,” she said.

“One of the issues is where when you have higher mortality — all of a sudden a jump in the death rate — is that you have to figure out what is a safe and effective and respectful way to handle a person’s remains,” Berlinger said. “You certainly can’t send a lot of additional bodies to funeral homes that were not equipped for surge conditions. So that’s why in public health emergencies, this is certainly not the first time you see temporary morgues.”

Midday Monday, when asked about the Big Apple’s burial plan at his daily coronavirus briefing, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said he had heard nothing about it.

“I’ve heard a lot of wild rumors,” he said. “But I have not heard anything about the city burying people in parks. I didn’t know that there was an issue.”

De Blasio maintained that the city has the capacity to handle the number of fatalities, though families will see delays.

“We will have the capacity for temporary burials, that’s all I’m going to say,” the mayor said, promising to treat every family with dignity and try to respect their religious needs.  

“We’re putting all our energy and resources into saving those we can save.” 

The worst-hit city in the U.S., New York leads the world in Covid-19 cases right now. It reported a one-day death toll of 594 on Sunday, down from 630 on Saturday.

“The goal is to avoid scenes like those in Italy, where the military was forced to collect bodies from churches and even off the streets,” Levine’s first tweet on Monday had said. 

Cuomo meanwhile expressed cautious optimism in his Monday press conference that his state was flattening the curve — attributing the slowed rate of infection to the success of social distancing. In addition to two days of a flat death rate from the virus, Cuomo said total hospitalizations are down, as are intensive care unit admissions and daily intubations. The state had 130,689 confirmed cases and 4,758 deaths as of Monday at lunchtime, Cuomo said. This could mean the state is reaching the beginning of an apex of cases — an unsustainable phase, the governor warned. 

Noting that Hong Kong and South Korea saw new outbreaks after easing restrictions prematurely, Cuomo also emphasized that New Yorkers can’t get too confident too quickly. 

“They let their foot off the gas too early,” Cuomo added. “Now is not the time to slack off on what we’re doing.” He extended the state’s stay-at-home restrictions to April 29, and announced that he is increasing the fine for noncompliance with social distancing rules from $500 to $1,000. 

Cuomo had previously said New York needed 30,000 ventilators to fight Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by coronavirus. With difficulty and in part through creative methods, he said Monday the state is, at least for now, meeting demand.

“We don’t have anyone who says they need them [ventilators] now who doesn’t have them,” the governor said. In addition to thanking the states Oregon, Washington, and California for sending equipment, Cuomo gave credit to the technique of splitting ventilators so they can serve two patients and to New York’s repurposing of BiPAP machines, short for bilevel positive airway pressure. 

Mayor de Blasio’s office put out a critical supply update Sunday evening that says the city has 135 full-service ventilators left in its stockpile and needs between 1,000 and 1,500 more by next Sunday, April 12, to treat the approximately 200-300 New Yorkers who are intubated daily.

At de Blasio’s briefing, the mayor conceded Hart Island off the Bronx has historically been used for burials. Levine said Hart Island is the only possible site for mass burials besides a city park.

“NYC’s ‘city morgue’ is the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME), which luckily is the best in the world,” Levine wrote. “But they are now dealing w/ the equivalent of an ongoing 9/11. And so are hospital morgues, funeral homes & cemeteries. Every part of this system is now backed up.”

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