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NYC medical examiners get help with workload from Fed's mortuary team

A makeshift morgue outside NYC Health + Hospitals/Bellevue

A makeshift morgue outside NYC Health + Hospitals/Bellevue in Manhattan. Credit: James Carbone

Mortuary specialists with the Department of Defense are in New York City to help medical examiners with the massive workload brought about by thousands of deaths from the coronavirus pandemic, city officials said.

About 42 specialists with the defense department have been deployed to the city since last week to help staffers at the Office of Chief Medical Examiner, said a spokeswoman for the office Tuesday.

The military specialists were assigned to the city as part of the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, or DMORT, a multiagency operation set up to provide help and coordination to municipalities in mass casualty situations. The DMORT response team was used in the city during Sept.11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

DMORT is under the control of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response under the National Disaster Medical System.

Morgues, hospitals, funeral homes, cemeteries and crematoria in the metropolitan area have been overwhelmed by the number of deaths from the coronavirus as New York City has grown to be the global hot spot for the pandemic.

As of Tuesday, New York City had recorded 4,009 deaths and 76,876 coronavirus cases, state figures show. Statewide, 5,489 people have died and 138,863 have tested positive for the virus, according to state figures.

Municipal regulations have been loosened to allow crematoria in New York City to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, through June 30, according to a city memo dated April 1

The city is also exploring using Hart Island, the city's potter's field, for temporary burials, "if the need grows," Mayor Bill de Blasio's spokeswoman Freddi Goldstein tweeted on Monday.

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Normal storage capacity of 800 to 900 bodies in borough morgues has been expanded to about 3,500 with tents, according to city medical examiner spokeswoman Aja Worthy-Davis, who said the office has purchased 45 refrigerated trucks. 

A spokeswoman for the federal Department of Health and Human Services said DMORT began supporting New York City efforts handling fatalities after a request by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on April 1.

“Approximately 56 DMORT professionals will staff temporary collection facilities set up in different locations throughout the city,” the spokeswoman said “These temporary facilities are being used when local hospitals reach or exceed capacity.”

DMORT is composed of a variety of professionals, including funeral directors, medical examiners, pathologists, forensic anthropologists and fingerprint specialists and others serving as “intermittent government employees who are activated during disasters or other public health emergencies,” the spokeswoman said.

During the COVID-19 crisis the DMORT team helps store the deceased until they can be transferred to funeral homes.                    

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