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New York City funeral homes coping with dramatic rise in coronavirus deaths

A makeshift morgue has been built outside of New York City's Bellevue hospital to deal with a spike in coronavirus deaths, March 26, 2020 in Manhattan. (photo by Debbie Egan Chin)

With more than 954 deaths across New York State from complications of coronavirus, funeral homes have had to make changes to the way they do business.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that there were an additional 161 deaths attributed to the coronavirus since Saturday.

Bodies are being stored locally by some hospitals in refrigeration trucks on-site, including a massive morgue set up at Bellevue Hospital. It was unclear how many bodies were being stored there pending funeral arrangements, but officials have said they have added excess capacity for “worst-case scenarios.”

Already, 2,314 people have died from the coronavirus in the United States; there are 32,988 such deaths worldwide.

City Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot said most of those who are dying are above the age of 75 and have underlying ailments including emphysema and diabetes. She said they expect to have “the same amount of deaths in an average flu season, but more deaths in a shorter amount of time.”

The problem has become even more acute at funeral homes around New York City, where bodies are lining up as they jam beyond capacity. It’s even more difficult at the Jewish funeral homes where some religious edicts mandate that people must be buried within 24 hours.

Because of this, one funeral home, Shomrei Haddas in Borough Park found itself with 35 funerals by noon Sunday. The chapel is not allowing any more than 10 people in the chapel at once, making it extremely difficult for families and mourners.

Representatives of the funeral home were not available for comment, as they were “too busy trying to complete funeral arrangements.”

Also cited is Yerayim Chapel on Broadway in Williamsburg, where community leaders say are “swamped,” though numbers were not immediately available.

Isaac Abraham, a Williamsburg community leader, said Shomrei Haddas Funeral Home has been reaching out to get more drivers to transport bodies to the cemetery and drive families to the burials.

“They are overwhelmed,” he said. “The entire chapel can have only 10 people total and they must be five seats apart and no more than five family members can come in at a time … [but] this is what has to be done.”

Abraham said neighborhood hospitals such as Maimonides and Mt. Sinai on Kings Highway are inundated with patients, many of whom didn’t need to be at the hospital, and therefore are waiting in hallways for triage and being exposed or exposing others for no reason.

“You may have to wait for 3-4 hours before a triage of nurses get to see you, while there are people coming in with difficulty breathing and there is no equipment,” Abraham said.

Moreover, there were a lot of Brooklyn residents not observing the social distancing and were still attending synagogue in large numbers despite the most senior rabbinic leader of the ultra-Orthodox world, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, ordering members of the community to obey social-distancing orders.

The rabbi further urged the faithful to pray alone instead of in a prayer quorum and report anyone who violates the orders to the police — and proclaimed that not listening to Health Department restrictions is “tantamount to murder.”

Most hospitals in the city are struggling to maintain supplies for the crisis, making it more difficult to treat patients. Abraham criticized the city for failing to properly supply hospitals, leading to more deaths. He also said many people are going to the hospital “when they should just stay home and stop taking hospital resources.”

“Maimonides has always been a problem with backups — that nothing new but they are now just overwhelmed dealing with five different ethnic groups who use the facility. The city and Mayor [Bill] de Blasio always say they were ready for terror attack sealing mailboxes, but then why are you not prepared at all now — no gloves or masks.”

While most funeral homes were too busy to speak on the record, one Brownsville funeral home, the Lisa S. Dozier Funeral home on Atlantic Avenue, is now conducting “virtual funerals” so that people do not have to congregate in large numbers beyond the 10 person limit.

On her website, Dozier, a 24-year funeral director announced:

“Due to COVID-19, funerals are limited to ten people or less, not allowing families to even have a proper funeral. Lisa, at this time, has turned to virtual measures, creating a bridge for grieving families. Now offering live-stream services not stationary to a funeral home, but available at churches as well. Allowing as many extended family and friends to join in remotely… and memorialize their loved one, the right way!”

Dr. Barbot assured those handling bodies and their loved ones that once a person dies, the virus cannot be spread because it is spread through “droplets,” that are not dispelled by a person who has expired and therefore there is “no risk.”

She added that the city is working closely with funeral homes working with funeral homes “insuring that as one of essential services, our burial desk is working 24-hours a day to meet the needs of families.”

Lisa Dozier talks with mourners at her funeral home, and now conducts “virtual funerals.”

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