US & Canada

Coronavirus: New York ramps up mass burials amid outbreak

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Media captionDrone footage shows mass burials in New York

Images have emerged of coffins being buried in a mass grave in New York City, as the death toll from the coronavirus continues to rise.

Workers in hazmat outfits were seen stacking wooden coffins in deep trenches in Hart Island.

Officials say burials are being ramped up at site, which has long been used for people with no next-of-kin or families who cannot afford a funeral.

New York state now has more coronavirus cases than any single country.

The state's confirmed caseload of Covid-19 is nearly 162,000, of whom 7,844 have died.

Spain has recorded about 157,000 cases and Italy 143,600, while China, where the virus emerged last year, has nearly 83,000 cases.

The US as a whole has recorded 467,000 cases and about 16,700 deaths. Globally there are 1.6 million cases and 97,000 deaths.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption About 40 bodies were buried on Thursday

The drone footage comes from Hart Island, off the Bronx in Long Island Sound, which has been used for more than 150 years by city officials as a mass burial site for those with no next-of-kin, or families who cannot afford funerals.

Normally, about 25 bodies a week are interred on the island, according to the Associated Press news agency.

But burial operations have increased from one day a week to five days a week, with around 24 burials each day, said Department of Correction spokesman Jason Kersten.

Prisoners from Rikers Island, the city's main jail complex, usually do the job, but the rising workload has recently been taken over by contractors.

It is not clear how many of the dead have no next-of-kin or could not afford a funeral. However, the city has cut the amount of time it will hold unclaimed remains amid pressure on morgue space.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio indicated earlier this week that "temporary burials" might be necessary until the crisis had passed. 

"Obviously the place we have used historically is Hart Island," he said.


A city upended

By Nada Tawfik, BBC News, New York

The coronavirus has changed everything about life, and now it's upending the rituals of death.

New Yorkers have been shocked by the grim scenes: ambulances constantly blaring down eerily deserted streets, body bags being forklifted into refrigerated trucks outside hospitals and now new trenches being dug on Hart's Island for possible mass burials.

The remote cemetery, accessible only by boat, is a place regarded historically with sorrow because of its mass graves with no tombstones, just unclaimed bodies.

The city's morgues can only handle so much before temporary burials for Covid-19 victims, once an absolute worst-case scenario, become necessary.

Funeral directors talk openly about how scared and depressed the spiking death toll has left them. Even before this week's record number of deaths, some families have had to wait a week or more to bury and cremate their loved ones.


The daily rise in coronavirus deaths announced in New York state on Friday was 777 - down slightly from the record high of 799 the day before.

Governor Andrew Cuomo said he took "solace" from this fact, as well as the continued decline in the number of Covid-19 patients admitted to New York hospitals.

He said the state was succeeding in "flattening the curve" but was still enduring "great pain".

On Thursday, another glimmer of hope was heralded as official projections for the nationwide death toll were lowered.

Dr Anthony Fauci, a key member of the White House's coronavirus task force, told NBC News' Today show the final number of Americans who would die from Covid-19 in the outbreak "looks more like 60,000".

In late March, Dr Fauci estimated "between 100,000 and 200,000" could die.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Mourners attend a funeral in Brooklyn, New York, as the city's coronavirus death toll hit a record high for a third day

The 60,000 projection would match the upper estimate for total flu deaths in the US between October 2019 to March 2020, according to government data.

But Vice-President Mike Pence stressed on Thursday that Covid-19 was about three times as contagious as influenza.

The White House has previously touted estimates that 2.2 million Americans could die from coronavirus if nothing was done to stop its spread.

Stay-at-home orders have in the meantime closed non-essential businesses in 42 states, while drastically slowing the US economy.

New data on Thursday showed unemployment claims had topped 6 million for the second week in a row, bringing the number of Americans out of work over the last three weeks to 16.8 million.

Chicago, meanwhile, imposed a curfew on alcohol sales from 21:00 local time on Thursday to stop the persistent violation of a ban on large gatherings.

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Media captionHow caravans are helping frontline medics with a place to stay

The measure, due to remain in place until 30 April, comes after health officials this week said black Chicagoans account for half of all the Illinois city's coronavirus cases and more than 70% of its deaths, despite making up just 30% of the population.

Figures from Louisiana, Mississippi, Michigan, Wisconsin and New York reflect the same racial disparity in coronavirus infections.

Presumptive Democratic White House nominee Joe Biden joined growing calls on Thursday for the release of comprehensive racial data on the pandemic.

He said it had cast a spotlight on inequity and the impact of "structural racism".

Medical workers talk as people waiting in line to receive testing  outside Roseland Community Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, 7 April 2020
Reuters
African Americans hit hard by coronavirus

  • 33%of those hospitalised are African Americans

  • 13%of the US population is African American

  • 68%of coronavirus deaths in Chicago were African American

Source: CDC, Chicago Department of Public Health

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