Some 570 bodies remain in refrigerated trailers in the warehouses of the marine terminal in South Brooklyn (NYC), at the end of 39th Street in Sunset Park, most of which have been frozen for months. And there is room for hundreds more, should the high COVID mortality repeat itself.
New York City officials believe this isolated site will help them avoid one of the most shocking tragedies of the first wave of COVID-19: the crushing bodies that exceeded the capacity of the city.
As the virus spreads across the country, several states and city halls have been requesting or using refrigerated trailers after seeing what happened in New York in the spring. But no other city appears to have had such a severe increase in deaths that bodies had to be held for months.
New York City experienced a terrible wave of deaths when it became the global epicenter of the virus in the spring, with 17,507 confirmed deaths from viruses between March 14 and June 18. At the peak of the pandemic in early April, some 800 people died in a single day.
In principle, more than 135 refrigerated trailers were deployed on the streets around the hospitals, in what became one of the longest-lasting images of the crisis in the city. But that was not enough. I know shelved trailers, doubling their capacity, as funeral directors ran out of storage space, and cemeteries and crematoria could not bear the burden.
A Brooklyn hospital resorted to using a forklift to lift the bodies into its morgue trailer, and a funeral home was discovered storing dozens of decomposing corpses in two U-Haul trucks and their visiting rooms.
In an effort to ease the backlog, the medical examiner’s office buried dozens of unclaimed bodies in early April on Hart Island, its potters’ field. But a few weeks later, he took a turn by transforming the huge waterfront warehouse in South Brooklyn into a long-term freezer storage facility for the dead, which allowed overwhelmed families to delay recovery of bodies for months before a public burial was considered on Hart Island.
“These long-term storage freezer containers, I think will be the new expectation,” said John Fudenberg, CEO of the International Association of Forensic Doctors. “They did it, they showed it works and I think it will be the wave of the future, because it is much more socially acceptable and more sensitive than a temporary burial. “
Finding a safe place to store hundreds of bodies for long periods was one of the most difficult lessons of the first wave of the crisis, more useful as the second wave grows in New York.
Last week, the city’s public hospitals canceled elective surgeries to save space in the face of the growing number of COVID patients. Deaths from that cause in NYC hover around 35 per day, up from an average of less than 10 per day in early November.
For now, a crisis as severe as spring seems unlikely, given the improvements in care and the arrival of the vaccine. Hospital internal morgues, which tend to hold an average of 15 bodies, were 25% full as of mid-December, according to the Greater New York Hospital Association, which tracks that data.
“In planning, we are always prepared for the worst case scenario“Said Dr. Barbara Sampson, the city’s chief coroner. “But my expectation is that we won’t be in the kind of place we were in the spring. I hope so with all my heart ”.
Even so, normally around 150 people per day die in the city from various causes – natural, disease, accidents, crime-, So just adding 100 deaths per day as a result of COVID-19 would likely already stress the system, several funeral directors admit.
“We have spent a lot of time sourcing supplies and setting up facilities. The position we are in now is kind of an anticipation, ”said Patrick J. Kearns, who operates three funeral homes in Queens and one on Long Island, and who kept his own refrigerated trailer after the first wave, just in case.
In recent months, the city has required each hospital to redesign its fatality management plans, appointing emergency personnel to morgues, parking spaces for multiple 53-foot trailers, and teams to handle paperwork and counsel families. And the medical examiner has distributed thousands of sturdy body bags.
But the installation that will make the most difference in the event of massive casualties again would be the marine terminal in Sunset Park (“Disaster Morgue 4” is its official name). On April 28, the city inaugurated that storage facility, which can hold at least 1,500 bodies.
“I hope we don’t need it, but knowing that it is there and knowing that it is part of the framework that has been built is incredibly comforting,” he told The New York Times Jenna Mandel-Ricci, co-author of a Greater New York Hospital Association report on fatality management, which documented lessons learned during the crisis.
At the end of May, the dock held a total of 2,137 bodies: 1,468 in long-term storage and 669 in refrigerated trailers, the medical examiner’s office said. For the transfer they had the help from the National Guard and hospital forensic personnel.
As of December 4, the city’s facilities at the maritime terminal still had 529 bodies in long-term storage and 40 in refrigerated trailers.
The city has not set a limit on how long a body can stay there, as long as there are ongoing discussions with the family for a final resting place.
The service is free, Dr. Sampson noted. And he added that those kept in long-term storage there in December are a mix of deaths from COVID-19 and other causes, easing the tension in the usual morgues.
While, Burials on Hart Island have not stopped – 2,225 adults have been interred in the town’s cemetery there this year, the most in decades, according to the city’s Department of Correction (DOC).
Now the burials are carried out at the request of the family or because the bodies remained unidentified or unclaimed after an investigation of about two months.
further Steps have been taken to increase efficiency and decrease the chance of the city losing track of a body. “After what we’ve all been through, with the loss of jobs and the loss of loved ones, the only thing that could make this all worse is if the OCME (NYC Office of the Chief Medical Examiner) or the funeral director has the deceased wrong, ”Sampson stressed. “I will not allow that to happen.”
A haunting reminder of what #NewYorkers recently endured and a stark warning of what we may face again.
NYC Dead Stay in Freezer Trucks Set Up During Spring Covid-19 Surge@WSJhttps://t.co/EvGDnj7xKh
– Jonathan Wackrow (@JDWackrow) November 22, 2020
City officials believe the warehouse will help them avoid a repeat of one of the most shocking tragedies of Covid-19’s first wave: the crush of bodies that overwhelmed the city’s capacity for dealing with the dead. https://t.co/5cZglw9WIP
– NYT Metro (@NYTMetro) December 26, 2020