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Video shows giant trench being dug on NYC's Hart Island to bury coronavirus victims

The public cemetery is now getting five times the usual number of unclaimed bodies every week.
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New drone video shows a giant trench being dug at New York City's public cemetery on Hart Island to help handle an influx of unclaimed bodies due to the coronavirus pandemic.

As the death toll mounts in New York, the city's public cemetery has started receiving about the same amount of bodies per day that it used to bury there each week.

Normally, about 25 bodies a week are interred on the island, mostly for people whose families can't afford a funeral, or who go unclaimed by relatives. But recently, 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.

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The medical examiner's office will only keep bodies for 14 days before they are sent to be buried in the city’s potter’s field on Hart Island in the Bronx.

Aerial images taken Thursday by The Associated Press captured workers digging graves on the island. About 40 caskets were lined up for burial on the island on Thursday, and two fresh trenches have been dug in recent days.

Workers wearing personal protective equipment bury bodies in a trench on Hart Island, in the Bronx, N.Y., on April 9, 2020.John Minchillo / AP

The island may also be used for temporary interments should deaths surge past the city's morgue capacity. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner can store about 800 to 900 bodies, while about 4,000 can be stored in refrigerated trucks dispatched to city hospitals.

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This plan for temporary burials at Hart was finalized in 2008 and is part of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner's plan for pandemic influenza outbreaks. Currently, New York City's daily death rate is far below the “maximum scenario” the plan was designed to handle.

Mayor Bill de Blasio told TV station NY1 earlier this week 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.

The city is able to accommodate burials of 19,000 dead on Hart Island.