When New York emerged as the center of the coronavirus pandemic last spring, the overwhelmed city began storing the bodies of victims in refrigerated trucks along the Brooklyn waterfront.
More than a year later, hundreds remain in the makeshift morgues on the 39th Street Pier in Sunset Park.
In a report to a City Council health committee last week, officials with the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner acknowledged that the remains of about 750 COVID-19 victims are still being stored inside the trucks, the nonprofit news website The City reported. Officials said during a Wednesday committee meeting that they will try to lower the number soon.
Dina Maniotis, executive deputy commissioner with the medical examiner’s office, said most of the bodies could end up on Hart Island, off the Bronx, where the has city buried its poor and unclaimed for more than a century.
“We will continue to work with families,” Maniotis told the health committee, according to The City. “As soon as the family tells us they would like their loved one transferred to Hart Island, we do that very quickly.”
With more than a million people buried there, the mile-long land mass in the Long Island Sound is home to the largest mass grave in the United States.
Up to one-tenth of the city’s coronavirus victims may be interred on the island, according to an analysis conducted through a collaboration between The City and the Stabile Center for Investigative Reporting at Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism. The analysis revealed that at least 2,334 adults were buried on the island in 2020 — more than double the number from 2019.
In March and April 2020, New York City was among the hardest hit areas in the world. The medical examiner’s office, equipped to handle 20 daily deaths, was instead flooded with as many as 200 per day, The Wall Street Journal reported.
“Long term storage was created at the height of the pandemic to ensure that families could lay their loved ones to rest as they see fit,” medical examiner’s office spokesman Mark Desire told The Associated Press on Friday. “With sensitivity and compassion, we continue to work with individual families on a case-by-case basis during their period of mourning.”
Between 500 and 800 bodies have been stored in the trucks since April 2020, according to estimates collected by The City and the Stabile Center.
Most families of the victims remaining in the trucks have said they want the Hart Island burial option, Maniotis told the health commission. In some cases, she said, the city has lost contact with families.
The refrigerated trucks, including 85 sent to the city by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, were parked outside hospitals during the city’s deadliest days of the pandemic, becoming one of the most visible signs of its toll.
The news about the bodies remaining in the trucks comes as New York City prepares to remove most of its remaining coronavirus restrictions in a move toward a kind of normalcy not seen since early 2020.