Around 650 bodies from New York City’s harrowing pandemic spring are still being held in mobile freezers on the 39th Street pier in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, according to a new report from the Wall Street Journal. In a tragic intersection of the economic and public-health crises brought forth by the coronavirus, the Journal reports that “many of the bodies are of people whose families can’t be located or can’t afford a proper burial, according to the city’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.”
Set up in early May, the freezer trucks were set up to help the city’s funeral home system handle a historic surge in deaths: Between the first reported COVID-19 case and early June, when the pandemic began to subside in New York, the city reported 16,992 deaths, as well as 4,760 probable deaths from the virus. In the early weeks of the crisis, funeral homes turned down bodies due to a lack of storage — a horrific trend that resulted in the discovery of 100 bodies in an unrefrigerated truck outside a funeral home in south Brooklyn in early April.
Unclaimed bodies in New York are normally buried in a matter of weeks in a public gravesite on Hart Island. But after Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed in April that there would be no mass burials in the city, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner began relying more heavily on mobile freezers for temporary body storage. The Wall Street Journal provides the details of how that storage went from relatively short-term to a nine-month internment on the Brooklyn waterfront:
The chief medical examiner’s office wasn’t built to deal with a global pandemic that killed tens of thousands of New Yorkers in a matter of months. Its forensic-investigations department has 15 staff members tasked with identification of bodies. A further seven people are responsible for contacting next of kin.
The unit is set up to handle about 20 deaths a day, said Aden Naka, the office’s deputy director of forensic investigations. During the peak of the pandemic it was inundated with as many as 200 new cases daily. Scientists from the laboratories of the chief medical examiner’s office were drafted to reinforce the investigations team and speed up the identification process, Ms. Naka said.
The office developed a backlog of cases that led to some families finding out weeks or months after the fact that a loved one had died and was awaiting collection.
The report — a reminder of COVID’s shockingly high early death rate in the northeast — comes as the nation experiences its worst spike in cases to-date. With the U.S. expected to breach its first day of 200,000 new infections this week, both the caseload and the death toll will worsen in the coming weeks due to holiday gatherings, cold weather sending Americans indoors, lower humidity levels likely abetting the spread of the virus, and a total absence of federal guidance.