NEW YORK >> New York City officials are starting to lay contingency plans if deaths from the coronavirus outbreak begin to overwhelm the capacity of morgues: temporarily burying the dead on public land.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said today that the city would consider temporary burials if the deaths from the coronavirus outbreak exceed the space available in city and hospital morgues, but it had not reached that point.
“It’s going to be very tough but we have the capacity,” the mayor said at a news conference at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
“If we need to do temporary burials to be able to tide us over to pass the crisis, and then work with each family on their appropriate arrangements, we have the ability to do that,” he said, adding, “We may well be dealing with temporary burials so we can deal with each family later.”
Earlier today, the chairman of the City Council health committee, Mark Levine, had sparked an uproar among city residents when he said on Twitter the that the office of the chief medical examiner was looking into creating temporary mass graves in a public park.
The mayor firmly denied there were plans to use a park as a temporary grave site.
The city medical examiner’s office said in a statement that no final decision on using temporary burials had been made and the morgues still had “adequate capacity at this time.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo also said today that he had heard nothing about the possibility of burying people temporarily in parks. “I have heard a lot of wild rumors but I have not heard anything about the city burying people in parks,” the governor said at his daily briefing.
After the mayor and governor weighed in — and after Levine’s comments caused a stir among some New Yorkers — the councilman wrote on Twitter that what he was describing was a contingency plan, and that “if the death rate drops enough it will not be necessary.”
Last week, the medical examiner’s office rushed 45 new refrigerated trailers to hospitals around the city which had started to report that their in-house morgues were filling up. The delivery of the mobile freezer units came as part of a plan — the “Pandemic Influenza Surge Plan for In- and Out-of-Hospital Deaths” — that the medical examiner has been using to deal with the sharp rise in the number of bodies.
Levine said plans for the possible use of “temporary interment” had been mapped out as part of that plan. He said the city had to face the reality that “traditional burial system has largely frozen up.”
“We are relying on freezers now to hold bodies, but that capacity is almost entirely used up,” he said, describing temporary interment as “essentially an extension of the freezer system.”
In recent days, the virus has tripled the number of people dying in the city compared with an average day.
Not only are hundreds of people dying in hospitals, straining their morgues, but the number dying at home is exploding, said Aja Worthy Davis, a spokeswoman for the medical examiner’s office. Before the pandemic, she said, at-home deaths ranged between 20 and 25 a day. Now they average around 200, she said.