WASHINGTON – Families of veterans who die during a bird flu outbreak shouldn't count on burying their loved ones in any of the 120 national cemeteries. The Department of Veterans Affairs foresees closing the military graveyards in a pandemic because of staffing problems.
The VA buries more than 250 veterans and eligible family members a day — about 93,000 a year. It operates cemeteries in 39 states and Puerto Rico.
Those burials could stop or be put on hold during a pandemic, presumably even as the tally of dead surges, according to a VA plan that lays out how it will cope with an influenza outbreak. The government is preparing for a worst-case scenario of nearly 2 million deaths in the United States in a pandemic.
The VA would continue treating veterans at its 150-plus hospitals and hundreds of smaller clinics. It also would provide back-up care to active duty military, as well as non-veterans if necessary, according to the plan posted on the department's Web site.
As for the dead, the VA said it may have to store bodies in refrigerated warehouses or trucks outfitted as temporary morgues.
If forced to close cemeteries because of staffing shortages or other reasons, the plan calls for VA employees to reroute phones and contact funeral homes and the next-of-kin to "reschedule" burials.
As much as 40 percent of the national work force could be off the job in a pandemic, according to federal estimates.
"They're raising a common concern: Where are the workers going to come from?" said Robert Fells, external chief operating officer and general counsel for the International Cemetery and Funeral Association.
During the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, the dead were sometimes buried in trenches, Fells said. Should another pandemic strike, it could take days to bury the dead, and perhaps only then in mass or temporary graves, he added.
"Will that be necessary? It may be and we have to be prepared if things get that bad," Fells said.
The VA acknowledges cemeteries will have to plan ways of allocating staff and plots for "significant numbers of burials if closure and rescheduling is not an adequate response," according to the plan.
"If there's truly a catastrophic kind of thing — whether it be a bird flu pandemic or a massive, terrorist-instigated attack that would claim tens or hundreds of thousands of lives — a lot of that frankly involves bulldozers," said Mike Duggan, theAmerican Legion's deputy director for national security and a Vietnam veteran.
The VA did not immediately return two calls seeking comment.
Bird flu has killed at least 128 people worldwide since it started ravaging Asian poultry farms in late 2003.
Scientists fear the H5N1 virus will mutate into a highly contagious form that can be passed from human to human. So far, most human cases have been linked to infected birds.