NEW YORK — The number of burials at New York’s Hart Island, a sprawling public cemetery holding the remains of the unclaimed dead, has increased fivefold as the death toll from the coronavirus continues to rise in the city.
With the pandemic claiming at least 5,065 lives in New York by Friday, overwhelmed mortuaries have moved unclaimed bodies — many that had been held for more than month, from people who died of other causes — to the island in order to make more space for coronavirus casualties.
Aerial photos of the burials, published Thursday by the Associated Press, offered viral portraits of one of the darkest moments since the pandemic began.
Even as signs continued to emerge Friday that the outbreak may be near its peak in New York, the national epicenter of the global crisis, city officials said said the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases continued to rise. The total was expected to hit 100,000 by the end of the day.
“And that’s only the ones we know about,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a press conference, adding that it is likely hundreds of thousands more have been infected but not tested.
The developments on Hart Island further underscored the urgent challenges facing New York officials. The facility, off the coast of the Bronx, has been used for a century and half to bury New Yorkers who have no next of kin, and those whose families are too poor to afford a private burial.
The city is currently burying 125 people a week there — with 25 people interred per day, five days a week. Typically, there are 25 burials per week. The number was up to 100 a week last Friday, POLITICO reported, and has now increased even further.
“There are people who pass away, and there is no family member, no loved one, no friend, no one who we can find … who has a connection to that person and is going to take responsibility for their burial,” de Blasio told reporters Friday.
“This has been the truth for generations,” he said. “But more people are passing away, obviously, in large measure because of Covid.”
The city medical examiner cut to 14 days the amount of time it will hold unclaimed remains before sending them to Hart Island for burial. De Blasio said Friday that, as long as a family member comes forward within that 14 days, the city will continue to hold a body indefinitely until funeral arrangements can be made.
“If no one has claimed them, no one has communicated, no one can be found in any way, shape or form, they will be buried,” de Blasio said. “If the family members and loved ones communicate, even if they can’t come now, that will be handled differently.”
The dead not claimed within that two week window can still be exhumed from Hart Island if family members later come forward.
The potter’s field’s 1 million dead include the homeless and early AIDS victims whose remains were rejected by funeral homes.
Typically, prisoners at Rikers Island are paid $1 an hour to bury bodies on Hart Island, with bodies placed in pine boxes numbered with permanent marker and stacked three high in trenches than can hold 150 adults or 1,000 children. During the current crisis, the city is not using prisoners and has hired contract laborers.
The city is not yet conducting temporary burials of coronavirus victims — which officials have said might be necessary if morgue space runs out — but is only burying remains that are unclaimed.
New York is using refrigerated trucks stationed outside of hospitals to hold the bodies of people killed by the disease, and funeral homes have reported being overwhelmed.
The death toll continues to mount even as the number of gravely ill people in hospitals is leveling off.
De Blasio spoke Friday at the USTA Indoor Training Center, part of the tennis stadium complex that hosts the U.S. Open, which has now been turned into a makeshift hospital and was set to start accepting patients Friday.
The tennis center is now lined with hospital beds in cubicles fashioned out of black curtains. About 100 patients were expected to arrive Friday, mostly from hard-hit NYC Health + Hospitals/Elmhurst, and the center has space to hold 470.
But if the city does not need as many hospital beds as was projected under worst-case scenarios, it may convert the tennis center and similar facilities into quarantine centers, where people suffering from more mild cases of the virus can stay to avoid infecting their families at home.
“I would love nothing more than for the hospital bed assumptions to be off,” de Blasio said.
The city is also eyeing the use of hotel rooms for quarantine space, but the mayor said New York is at least “weeks away” from being able to offer such space for the general public.
Health care workers are already able to stay in hotels, which the city has used to house homeless people and released prisoners who have tested positive for Covid-19. About 2,000 rooms are currently in use.