New York has shortened the amount of time it will hold unclaimed bodies as the city’s hospitals have turned to burying them on an island as it struggles to deal with the mounting death toll from the coronavirus outbreak.
Under the new policy, the medical examiner’s office will keep bodies in storage for just 14 days before they’re buried on the city’s Hart Island.
Normally, about 25 bodies a week are interred on the island, mostly for people whose families can’t afford a funeral, or who go unclaimed by relatives.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said “it’s a sad topic” of discussion but the plan to bury bodies on Hart Island isn’t new.
“We've seen this throughout our history but it's being made deeper by the fact that more people are passing away because of this disease,” he said.
“That there are people passing away and there is no family member, no loved one, no friend, no one who we can find, who our Office of Medical Examiner can find, who has a connection to that person and is going to take responsibility for their burial.”
Mr de Blasio added if a loved one “comes later” the body can be returned to them.
“So because there's just been, unfortunately, more people passing away, including those who are not claimed by any family,” he said.
“That's what's been happening at Hart Island. But that's the only thing that's been happening at Hart Island.”
‘An image no one could have ever imagine’
There are about two dozen bodies a day, five days a week buried on the island, said Jason Kersten, a spokesman for the Department of Correction, which oversees the burials.
Mr Kertsen said on Friday, local time, that two new trenches have been dug “in case we need them”.
The island may also be used as a site for temporary interments should deaths surge past the city's morgue capacity.
"We're all hoping it's not coming to this," Mr Kersten said. "At the same time, we're prepared if it does."
While the practice is nothing new, images of the trenches being dug, captured by a Reuters drone, have startled some online.
“It has come to this,” British Channel 4 presented Alex Thomson wrote on Twitter alongside the photo.
Meanwhile Australian ABC journalist said he could hardly believe what he was witnessing.
“I truly cannot get my head around this ... #COVID19 victims in New York being buried in mass graves ... an image no one could have ever imagined,” he wrote on Twitter.
Before burial, the dead are wrapped in body bags and placed inside pine caskets. The deceased's name is scrawled in large letters on each casket, which helps should a body need to be disinterred later.
New York’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner can store about 800 to 900 bodies in its buildings, and has room to store about 4,000 bodies in some 40 refrigerated trucks it can dispatch around the city to hospitals, which typically have only small morgues.
As of Saturday afternoon, AEST, more than 18,740 coronavirus deaths have been recorded in the United States.
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