Aerial images show New York ramping up burials as officials grapple with coronavirus death toll

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New York City officials trying to process a rising coronavirus death toll have been forced to ramp up burial operations at its public cemetery from one day a week to five.

Aerial images captured on Thursday showed 40 caskets lined up for burial at Hart Island — the same day New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo reported 799 new deaths across the state. Normally, about 25 bodies a week are interred there, mostly for people whose families can't afford a funeral, or who go unclaimed by relatives.

Workers wearing personal protective equipment bury bodies in a trench on Hart Island in New York City's Bronx borough on Thursday. (AP)

Workers wearing personal protective equipment bury bodies in a trench on Hart Island in New York City's Bronx borough on Thursday. (AP)

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"The pictures of our fellow New Yorkers being buried on Hart Island are devastating for all of us," Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a tweet Friday. "Remember, these are human beings. These are neighbors we've lost."

"For decades, our city has buried people on Hart Island when there is no one else to make burial arrangements. It’s a tragic reality," he continued.

"The heartbreaking numbers of deaths we're seeing means we are sadly losing more people without family or friends to bury them privately," De Blasio added. "Those are the people who will be buried on Hart Island, with every measure of respect and dignity New York City can provide."

New York City’s medical examiner says the city will hold onto remains for 14 days before they will be transferred to Hart Island. (AP)

New York City’s medical examiner says the city will hold onto remains for 14 days before they will be transferred to Hart Island. (AP)

The city’s medical examiner’s office announced it will keep bodies in storage for 14 days before they are sent to Hart Island.

It is not immediately clear how many of the bodies being buried at Hart Island are coronavirus victims — but the images show two fresh trenches that have been dug and contractors wearing protective suits. Other images show caskets piled on top of each other.

De Blasio said earlier this week that officials were looking into temporarily burying coronavirus victims on Hart Island if morgues and temporary storage units fill up.

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The Democratic mayor told TV station NY1 that under such a contingency plan, bodies of COVID-19 victims would be buried individually — not in mass graves — so families could later reclaim them.

Hospitals, funeral homes and cemeteries have been struggling to deal with a surge in bodies during the coronavirus outbreak. (AP)

Hospitals, funeral homes and cemeteries have been struggling to deal with a surge in bodies during the coronavirus outbreak. (AP)

But a spokeswoman for the medical examiner’s office told the AP on Thursday that it “does not currently anticipate reaching morgue capacity.”

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“However, as the mayor has said, the city may explore the option of temporary burials in Hart Island if necessary,” said the spokeswoman, Aja Worthy-Davis.

Workers wearing personal protective equipment bury bodies in a trench on Hart Island, Thursday, April 9, 2020, in the Bronx borough of New York. 

Workers wearing personal protective equipment bury bodies in a trench on Hart Island, Thursday, April 9, 2020, in the Bronx borough of New York.  (AP)

Elsewhere in New York City, overwhelmed hospitals have been placing bodies in refrigerated trucks parked outside their doors. Cuomo had said Thursday that “additional funeral directors” are going to be brought in to deal with the crisis.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.