Workers wearing hazmat suits have been spotted burying caskets in a mass grave on New York’s Hart Island – as the number of burials quadruples amid the coronavirus pandemic and the city’s death toll rises to more than 4,200. A dozen contracted laborers were seen digging and burying the caskets – some of which had names carved on them – on Thursday. The city has used Hart Island to bury New Yorkers with no known next of kin or whose family are unable to arrange a funeral since the 19th century. Typically, about 25 bodies are buried there once a week by low-paid Rikers Island jail inmates. That number began increasing last month as the new coronavirus spread rapidly and New York became the epicenter of the pandemic.
They are now burying about two dozen bodies a day, five days a week, DailyMail.com has been told. Currently, 4,260 people have died from coronavirus in the city and more than 80,000 have been infected. Until now, officials have remained tight-lipped on whether coronavirus victims were being buried on Hart Island. On Thursday, officials said they had no choice but to bury COVID-19 patients at the city’s cemetery as it deals with the mounting coronavirus death toll and dwindling morgue space.
Under a new policy, the medical examiner’s office will keep bodies in storage for just 14 days before they’re buried in the city’s potter’s field on Hart Island. City officials haven’t explained whether the increase in burials at Hart Island is due to pressure on mortuaries to dispose of bodies more quickly. Prisoners from Rikers Island are usually brought in to dig graves on Hart Island but the Department of Corrections has since hired contracted laborers to carry out the work due to the outbreak. ‘For social distancing and safety reasons, city-sentenced people in custody are not assisting in burials for the duration of the pandemic,’ DOC Press Secretary Jason Kersten told DailyMail.com. ‘Contracted laborers are performing this important work under DOC supervision.
‘Burial operations at the city cemetery remain uninterrupted and they continue to be supervised by DOC, which has been performing this solemn duty on Hart Island for over 150 years and will continue to do so until the jurisdiction of Hart Island moves to Parks in 2021.’For burial on the island, 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 if any body needs to be exhumed later. The caskets are buried in long narrow trenches excavated by digging machines. Earlier on Thursday, the department referred questions about causes of death to the city’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Aja Worthy-Davis, an OCME spokeswoman, said it would take time to collate individual causes of death from the office’s records, but that it was probable some of the recent burials include those felled by the coronavirus.
The island may also be used as a site for temporary interments should deaths surge past the city’s morgue capacity – a point that has not yet been reached, according to the DOC and OCME. ‘We’re all hoping it’s not coming to this,’ Kersten said. ‘At the same time, we’re prepared if it does.’ OCME can store about 800 to 900 bodies in its buildings and also has room to store about 4,000 bodies in some 40 refrigerated trucks it can dispatch around the city to hospitals that typically have only small morgues. –Daily Mail