TODAY'S PAPER
66° Good Evening
66° Good Evening
NewsHealthCoronavirus

Coronavirus overwhelms New York's mortuary system

Dan Moloney, co-owner of Lake Ronkonkoma-based Moloney Family Funeral Homes, talks about what they are seeing amid the coronavirus crisis. Credit: Newsday / Susan Yale and Matthew Chayes

So many people are dying from coronavirus in the metropolitan area that each link in the mortuary system is overwhelmed: morgues, hospitals, funeral homes, cemeteries, crematoria, even transportation between these places.

"There's people dying all over the place," said Dan Moloney, co-owner of Lake Ronkonkoma-based Moloney Family Funeral Homes. "We've never seen anything like this."

And the death toll — at least 2,738 in New York City and 580 on Long Island as of Monday — is forecast to keep rising.

An average of 61 Long Islanders died every day from 1998 to 2017, according to an analysis of the most recent vital statistics available from the state Health Department. On Friday, according to Nassau and Suffolk counties, there were alone 52 deaths related to coronavirus.

The Moloney business had an approximately ninefold increase on Friday in cremation requests, according to Dan Moloney.

Workers are wearing extra protective gear like N95 masks and are draping extra coverings on the body when handling the remains of someone who died of the virus, and the precautions begin when the remains are picked up, said Mike Lanotte, executive director of the New York State Funeral Directors Association.

But, as in medical settings, there's a shortage of protective gear among mortuary workers. Lanotte said he's asked the governor's office for help acquiring between 20,000 and 25,000 masks to get through the month.

"That's assuming we don't see a surge in deaths in other parts of the state,” Lanotte said. He added: "We have funeral directors who have contracted the virus and are symptomatic and not able to work right now. Whether they got it from a decedent, being in the hospital picking up a decedent, we don't know the specifics, how it was transmitted."

A note to our community:

As a public service, this article is available for all. Newsday readers support our strong local journalism by subscribing.  Please show you value this important work by becoming a subscriber now.

SUBSCRIBE

Cancel anytime

At least one cemetery, St. Charles in East Farmingdale, is requiring funeral homes to buy special biohazard-resistant bags from the cemetery to encase caskets, said Peter Moloney, also of Moloney Funeral Homes.

David Fleming, former executive director of the New York State Association of Cemeteries and now its chief lobbyist, said the pace of graveside services has been slowed by the increased number of deaths and the need to allow fewer people on the grounds at a time for social distancing.

He also said there have been delays at some religious cemeteries "due to staggered staffing to protect workers," but cemeteries are considering ways to address this issue, such as increasing hours of operation.

Long Island and Calverton national cemeteries — which like all 142 cemeteries operated by the federal Department of Veterans Affairs last month indefinitely suspended services and military honors — have had 40 cancellations since mid-March, according to Les' A. Melnyk, a spokesman for the National Cemetery Administration. Nationwide, he said, there were about 2,000 cancellations; families want to postpone until after the crisis.

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

Until the extended hours, local crematoria were already running at their maximum permitted capacity — typically normal business hours, according to Fleming.

There are four crematoria on Long Island, all in Suffolk, and four in New York City.

State and local plans have been updated in the past several weeks for dealing with mass casualties and pandemics, Fleming said.

New York City is 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.

Funeral homes are doing their best to adhere to the Jewish law mandating that burial occur within 24 hours, said Rabbi Anchelle Perl of the Mineola Chabad, a Hasidic Jewish outreach group. He said there is a shortage of hearses. In the last week, he said, he got a mass plea over WhatsApp asking who might be willing to drive coffins in their minivans for pay.

The Jewish burial system is stressed, including the rites of washing, purification and shrouding known as Taharah. The millennia-old practice derives from the biblical narrative of Abraham burying his wife, Sarah. Those performing the ritual are now wearing hazmat suits and taking other precautions, Perl said.

Islamic International Funeral Services, which in based in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and services the metro area and beyond, is not performing Islam's ritual washing and shrouding per religious law. That's because of fears of virus transmission and due to the fact there is no space, according to co-owner Kareem Elmatbagi. He said the funeral home's intake has doubled to about 400 over the last few weeks.

"Now we have to use my religious wash room as a morgue," he said. "During this pandemic, we're not doing any religious washing or shrouding at all."

Islamic law mandates burial within 24 hours, but that rule is being waived because of the overwhelming number of cases, he said.

Across the region, the average wait time for a funeral home to pick up a body is far longer, according to officials and funeral workers.

The city's normal storage capacity of 800 to 900 bodies in the 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. 

Nassau is leasing refrigerated trucks, including five that will hold a total of about 240 bodies, said county spokesman Michael Fricchione, who said the trucks supplement the county morgue’s 300 spots. Suffolk didn't provide counterpart figures.

“The cemeteries have had slowdowns," said John Chiara, deputy Nassau County executive for compliance. "They’re doing less burials, so … there’s more backup."

He added that "there’s a finite amount of space — you keep bodies either at the hospital, you keep them at funeral homes or you keep them at the county morgue.”

Suffolk Medical Examiner Dr. Michael Caplan said in a statement there are fewer cemetery burials because of fewer workers there to perform the work.

When his investigators and drivers go on a coronavirus call, he said, they place a face mask over the deceased and wrap the face in absorbent material because “secretions that may collect … are still capable of being spread when the body is being moved.”

Dr. Mitchell Katz, head of city public hospitals, said: “Everything in our current world is abnormal. Under normal circumstances, people who die are people who were in the hospital for long periods of time — they had cancer. The families prepared. They knew what funeral home they would use. They made arrangements.”

Now, he said, people are dying of coronavirus, often within days of hospital arrival and without their families.

“This is not standard life,” he said.

With Scott Eidler

A note to our community:

As a public service, this article is available for all. Newsday readers support our strong local journalism by subscribing.  Please show you value this important work by becoming a subscriber now.

SUBSCRIBE

Cancel anytime

Health