New York hires contractors to bury dead as coronavirus toll continues mounting

After three consecutive days of record-breaking coronavirus deaths, New York City officials have hired contract laborers to bury the dead in its potter’s field on Hart Island.

Since the 19th century, the city has used the site off the coast of the Bronx borough for primarily indigent burials and those for whom no next of kin could be located, Reuters reported.

>> Coronavirus checklist: 100-plus disinfectants that may kill coronavirus on surfaces

According to The Washington Post, the one-mile strip of burial ground accessible only by boat serves as the final resting place for more than one million former New Yorkers.

Prior to the novel coronavirus pandemic, low-paid jail inmates from Riker’s Island interred an average of 25 bodies per week. Jason Kersten, a Department of Corrections spokesman, told Reuters that figure has increased to about two dozen burials per day, five days a week since New York City became the epicenter of the United States’ coronavirus outbreak. According to a Johns Hopkins University tally, the state of New York had confirmed 161,799 infections, resulting in 7,067 deaths, or roughly 42% of the nation’s 16,690 total virus-related deaths.

>> Coronavirus symptoms: What you need to know

The contract labor has become necessary, Kersten said, because the city’s main jail is experiencing its own outbreak of COVID-19 respiratory infections caused by the virus.

“They added two new trenches in case we need them,” Kersten told Reuters, adding, “For social distancing and safety reasons, city-sentenced people in custody are not assisting in burials for the duration of the pandemic.”

>> Coronavirus: Know the facts directly from the CDC

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has also indicated that Hart Island could be used for temporary interments if the virus’ death toll overwhelms the city’s morgues and crematoriums, the Post reported.

>> Coronavirus: Can the government make you stay home if you are sick?

The city’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner can store between 800 and 900 bodies in its facilities, with room to store about 4,000 additional bodies in some 40 refrigerated trucks that can dispatched to hospitals citywide experiencing morgue overload, Reuters reported.

“We’re all hoping it’s not coming to this,” Kersten told the news agency, adding, “At the same time, we’re prepared if it does.”