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"There will be no mass burials on Hart Island," said Mayor Bill de Blasio. "Everything will be individual and every body will be treated with dignity."

By Joelle Goldstein
April 10, 2020 02:09 PM
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Hart Island
Credit: JUSTIN LANE/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

New York City coronavirus victims whose families have not yet claimed their bodies may be laid to rest on Hart Island, officials announced on Friday.

NYC Mayor Press Secretary Freddi Goldstein said officials would be burying the victims on the island, located east of the Bronx, after being unable to contact their families for weeks, according to CNN.

The plan is being established to ensure that the area has enough morgue space amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has since claimed at least 5,663 lives in New York City as of Friday afternoon, the New York Times reported.

“For decades, Hart Island has been used to lay to rest decedents who have not been claimed by family members,” Goldstein said, according to CNN. “We will continue using the Island in that fashion during this crisis and it is likely that people who have passed away from COVID-19 who fit this description will be buried on the island in the coming days.”

“These are people who, for two weeks, we have not been able to find anyone who says ‘I know that person, I love that person, I will handle the burial,'” she added. “These are people who we have made zero contact with the family.”

In the event that morgue officials are able to contact the deceased’s family, typically within 14 days of their passing, Goldstein said their bodies will not be transported to Hart Island for burial.

For over 150 years, Hart Island has been used as a public cemetery for NYC residents who were unclaimed at the morgue for 30-60 days, CNN reported. The Department of Correction, which manages the land, typically assigns jail inmates to bury the bodies — a task that once averaged about 25 interments per week, according to Reuters.

That number has since skyrocketed to about 24 bodies per day, five days a week, the outlet reported.

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However, due to social distancing mandates, Department of Corrections spokesperson Jason Kersten told Reuters that the prison inmates would not be assisting with the burials and they were hiring contract laborers instead.

“They added two new trenches in case we need them,” Kersten explained to Reuters. “For social distancing and safety reasons, city-sentenced people in custody are not assisting in burials for the duration of the pandemic.”

On Friday, Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke out about the victims on Hart Island, calling it “devastating for all of us.”

“Remember, these are human beings. These are neighbors we’ve lost,” he tweeted. “There will be no mass burials on Hart Island. Everything will be individual and every body will be treated with dignity.”

“It’s a tragic reality,” he added. “The heartbreaking numbers of deaths we’re seeing means we are sadly losing more people without family or friends to bury them privately. Those are the people who will be buried on Hart Island, with every measure of respect and dignity New York City can provide.”

As of Friday afternoon, there are least 483,600 cases and 17,947 deaths attributed to coronavirus in the United States, according to the New York Times. New York currently leads the nation, with at least 170,512 cases and 7,844 deaths in the state, the Times reported.

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. To help provide doctors and nurses on the front lines with life-saving medical resources, donate to Direct Relief here.