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NYC’s grim contingency as coronavirus deaths rise: Temporary mass burials

U.S. discussing possibility of temporary mass burials for COVID-19 patients.

The rising death toll from coronavirus in New York has city leaders contemplating temporary mass burials for patients who die from the infection.

“If we need to do temporary burials to be able to tie this over, to pass the crisis, and then to work with each family on their appropriate arrangements, we have the ability to do that,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday.

A document from the city's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and obtained by ABC News outlines surge capacity plans in the event that the city runs out of refrigerated space for deceased persons. According to the plan, “the need for temporary interment on Hart Island may arise.” The report also makes it clear that the deceased would be buried individually in caskets, and that temporary interment or burial is not to be confused with a final burial.

Hart Island, located off City Island in the Bronx, serves as the city’s public cemetery. Run by the Department of Correction, the island is the final resting place for over 1 million individuals, with an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 burial plots remaining.

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner report also mentions the use of the Department of Defense’s “temporary mass interment method,” which calls for laying bodies in caskets lengthwise, up to 10 at a time, to avoid stacking bodies and to minimize digging.

The 688-page document does not reference possible usage of NYC parks for temporary burial, a contingency controversially suggested by City Council member Mark Levine on Twitter and then to ABC News.

“We are running out of freezer space. We will find a NYC park and put people in trenches 10 in a line. It will be dignified and it will be orderly,” said Levine, who also chairs the council's health committee.

In a series of tweets early Monday, Levine reported that a typical hospital morgue might hold 15 bodies, and the refrigerated trailers that are now a common sight outside most city hospitals hold around 100 bodies. Levine stressed that the goal of the contingency plan is to “avoid scenes like those in Italy, where the military was forced to collect bodies from churches and even off the streets.”

Mayor de Blasio adamantly denied reports that first surfaced from Levine’s tweets, with his spokesperson telling ABC News, “We are NOT currently planning to use local parks as burial grounds. We are exploring using Hart Island for temporary burials, if the need grows.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo also weighed in at his daily press briefing, confirming that he’d heard the “wild rumors” and added that he would not support the idea.

As hospital and city morgues continue to fill, families of coronavirus victims are also facing shortages in available funeral homes. In contrast to the first responders who are in need of personal protective equipment, these last responders need one thing: space.

Funeral directors told ABC News that the usual process for dealing with the deceased — including hospital morgues, the freezer trucks, the funeral homes and cemeteries -- is being critically stressed with the spike in coronavirus-related deaths. As Levine put it, the “death system is overwhelmed.”

At Kearns Funeral Home in Queens, not far from hard-hit Elmhurst Hospital, owner Patrick Kearns is a fourth-generation funeral director who normally serves about 35 families a month. Last month alone Kearns said his his funeral home served 80 families, and he said he's been forced to turn some families away.

"Right now I have no choice," he said. "It’s going to become an issue and the city will need to assist these hospitals in storing and holding people until the funeral homes can catch up."

What to know about coronavirus:

  • How it started and how to protect yourself: Coronavirus explained
  • What to do if you have symptoms: Coronavirus symptoms
  • Tracking the spread in the U.S. and worldwide: Coronavirus map
  • This report was featured in the Wednesday, April 8, 2020, episode of “Start Here,” ABC News’ daily news podcast.

    "Start Here" offers a straightforward look at the day's top stories in 20 minutes. Listen for free every weekday on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, the ABC News app or wherever you get your podcasts.