As morgues overflow, New York struggles with COVID-19 dead

Refrigerator truck
Bodies are moved to a refrigerator truck serving as a temporary morgue outside of Wyckoff Hospital in the Borough of Brooklyn on April 4, 2020 in New York. New York state's coronavirus toll rose at a devastating pace to 3,565 deaths Saturday, the governor said, up from 2,935 the previous day, the largest 24-hour jump recorded there. Bryan R. Smith / AFP

NEW YORK, April 7, 2020 (AFP) - Refrigerator trucks parked outside hospital doors, overwhelmed undertakers, and talk about temporary burials in parks: America's coronavirus epicenter of New York is grappling with how to deal with the dead.

As the Big Apple's death toll from COVID-19 soared to 3,485 Monday, images of bodies covered in sheets being transported on stretchers by health workers in protective suits are a common sight outside hospitals.

The trucks are storing bodies that are accumulating too quickly for funeral directors to pick them up directly from hospitals.

On Monday morning, AFP saw nine bodies loaded into trucks outside Wyckoff Hospital in Brooklyn.

Several undertakers interviewed by AFP said they were struggling to deal with New York state's coronavirus death toll of more than 500 a day.

Between Friday and Saturday, a high of 630 deaths were recorded.

"The majority of funeral homes do not have refrigeration or (have) limited refrigeration," said Ken Brewster, owner of Crowe's Funeral Homes in Queens.

"If you don't have the space... you need those trucks," added Brewster, whose small business has been bombarded with requests for funeral services for COVID-19 patients over the past week.

Like 9/11'

Pat Marmo manages five funeral homes across the city.

He is finding it difficult to cope with the stress generated by influx of bodies, particularly because he himself just lost a cousin and close friend to the pandemic.

"The hospitals are pushing (us). They want the people picked up (as quickly as possible) and the funeral homes don't have the facilities to handle these bodies," he told AFP.

Marmo estimates that his homes are currently dealing with three times more bodies that normal and that burials will last well into next month.

"It's almost like 9/11, going on for days and days and days," he said, referring to the worst terror strikes on US soil back on September 11, 2001.

Undertakers are so overcrowded that a city official raised the possibility Monday of carrying out temporary burials in a public park.

"Trenches will be dug for 10 caskets in a line. It will be done in a dignified, orderly and temporary manner. But it will be tough for NYers to take," tweeted Mark Levine, a Manhattan council representative.

The comments caused quite a stir in America's most populous city, which has already been transformed by the pandemic, including in Central Park where a field hospital is tending to virus patients.

Apex of deaths?

The mayor's spokeswoman, Freddi Goldstein, stressed that the city government was not considering using local parks as cemeteries.

But she added that Hart Island, where around one million New Yorkers are buried in mass graves, may be used "for temporary burials, if the need grows."

Mayor Bill de Blasio himself spoke of the possibility of temporary burials "to tide us over until the end of the crisis.

"We are not at that point," he told reporters, before refusing to give any more details.

Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Monday that the number of deaths across New York state had flattened out since Saturday's high, below 600 a day.

He suggested the state may be at the peak of its pandemic, but extended stay-at-home measures until April 29, saying now was not the time to end social distancing.