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Pics/Video: New York City starts burying coronavirus victims in mass graves

Workers place bodies of coronavirus victims in a cold storage trailer outside Brooklyn Hospital Center on March 31, 2020. (Gardiner Anderson/New York Daily News/TNS)

New York City has begun burying coronavirus victims in mass graves.

Aerial photos taken Thursday by the Associated Press shows workers wearing hazmat suits or other personal protective equipment (PPE) while digging graves on NYC’s Hart Island, the largest public burial ground in the U.S. with more than 1 million people laid to rest over 131 acres. About 40 wooden caskets were seen lined up for burial on Thursday, and two new trenches have been dug in recent days.

The bodies on the island, located just off the Bronx, are normally done by inmates from the nearby Rikers Island jail complex but Department of Correction spokesman Jason Kersten said the job has been taken over by contractors, who are wearing PPE to avoid catching or spreading COVID-19.

“For social distancing and safety reasons, city-sentenced people in custody are not assisting in burials for the duration of the pandemic,” Kersten told the New York Post.

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The Post reports the bodies are typically wrapped in body bags and placed in pine boxes with their names written on top. A spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio confirmed Thursday that COVID-19 victims are among those being buried.

“For decades, Hart Island has been used to lay to rest decedents who have not been claimed by family members. We will continue using the island in that fashion during this crisis and it is likely that people who have passed away from COVID who fit this description will be buried on the Island in the coming days,” de Blasio’s press secretary Freddi Goldstein told The Post.

According to the Associated Press, New York City has shortened the amount of time it will hold unclaimed remains before they are buried in the city’s public cemetery. The medical examiner’s office will keep bodies in storage for just 14 days, reduced from 30 days, before interring them in the potter’s field on Hart Island; some overwhelmed hospitals have been placing bodies in refrigerated trucks parked outside their doors.

Normally, about 25 bodies a week are buried on Hart Island, mostly for people whose families can’t afford a funeral, or who go unclaimed by relatives. Kersten says the city is now burying five times as many bodies — close to 25 a day — as the death toll grows from coronavirus.

More than 7,000 people have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, in New York state. Nearly 800 new deaths were announced Thursday, the highest single-day total yet, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo says the peak of the crisis is expected within the week.

New York City’s pandemic plan, established in 2008, allows for mass graves to be used to bury up to 51,000 bodies on Hart Island. Temporary burials in city parks is also listed as an option in a disaster plan, but the city’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner currently has no plans to bury anyone in city parks.

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©2020 Syracuse Media Group, N.Y.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.