What to Know
- NYC may soon need to start doing "temporary burials" as the number of dead piling up due to COVID-19 overwhelms city morgues, a top city official says
- NYC Council Health Committee chair Mark Levine said Monday those temporary burials would likely happen in trenches dug in city parks, but state officials denied that
- The mayor said temporary burials was something the city may have to deal with; more than 2,400 have died in NYC as of Monday morning
The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner says it is not considering temporary burials in New York City parks after a top city official tweeted that trenches would likely need to be dug in the parks for the bodies of COVID-19 victims.
NYC Council Health Committee chair Mark Levine initially said in series of tweets Monday morning that the city would soon need to face the "gruesome reality" of temporary burials, and that they would likely take place in trenches for caskets dug in city parks.
Due to the number of dead bodies increasing on a daily basis due to COVID-19, the freezers at OCME facilities in Manhattan and Brooklyn will soon be full, Levine said.
That meant that the city could have to turn to temporary internment in city parks, Levine said. "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," he wrote.
Soon after -- as the tweet gained attention -- the chair added that trenches in parks were only a contingency for which the city was preparing. "But if the death rate drops enough it will not be necessary." He later defended his tweet further to NBC 4, saying there was a death crisis in New York City with a staff shortage in mortuaries and funeral homes. He said a temporary burial plan may have to happen -- it could be on Hart Island but it could also the parks, depending on the trajectory of the curve.
The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner told News 4 that park trenches were one scenario in the OCME disaster plan, but not something currently being considered or planned for. The mayor said Monday that temporary burials were something the city "may well be dealing with," but would not go into further detail.
In the initial multi-part tweet thread Monday, Levine said the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner "city morgue," hospital morgues, funeral homes and cemeteries were dealing with the equivalent of an ongoing 9/11. Using city parks for temporary burials would avoid scenes like those in Italy, Levine said, where the military was seen collecting bodies from churches and even off the streets.
The Department of Defense and New York's National Guard had already sent teams to assist with internment of the dead, and volunteer medical examiners have come from around the country, he said. "But we are going to need much more help if we're going to avoid disaster."
Asked about the need for temporary burials at a Monday morning press conference, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio said he would not go into detail on the matter. "We have the capacity but it's going to be very tough. I don't want to go into detail because I don't think it's a great thing to be talking about publicly."
He added that the city was trying to treat every family with dignity and "respect the religious needs of those who are devout." In a later interview on NY1, de Blasio said it was "totally false" that the city was considering such a plan.
"here will never, ever be anything like 'mass graves' or 'mass internment' in New York City, ever," the mayor said. "If God forbid, we ever had to get to the point of a temporary burial, it would be individual by individual so that families could reclaim their loved ones when the crisis was over. But we're nowhere near that now."
De Blasio said that if anything like that scenario were to come up, the city would use Hart Island, where the city buries unclaimed bodies, to temporarily keep the bodies. He also denied Rikers inmates would dig the temporary trenches, and shot down any rumors that skating rinks could be used as temporary morgue facilities.
With U.S. medical experts estimating the death toll from the coronavirus pandemic could reach 240,000 nationwide, the tough question of where to put the dead is worrying each parts of the system. It's a problem being faced worldwide.
In Spain, an ice rink in Madrid was turned into a makeshift morgue. In Italy, embalmed bodies in caskets were being sent to church halls and warehouses awaiting cremation or burial. And in Ecuador, families on social media showed images of dead loved ones wrapped in plastic or cloth, waiting for days to be taken away by overwhelmed morgue workers.
In New York City, where the death toll was more than 2,400 as of Monday morning, authorities brought in refrigerated trucks to store bodies and a makeshift morgue was built outside Bellevue Hospital.
Around the city, workers in protective gear have been seen putting bodies of victims into refrigerated trailers. At some hospitals, like Lenox Hill in Manhattan, the trucks are parked on the streets, along sidewalks and in front of apartments. Cars and buses passed by as corpses were loaded by forklift at Brooklyn Hospital Center.