COVID crisis strains morgues, coroners

Associated Press Workers move bodies to a refrigerated truck from the Andrew T. Cleckley Funeral Home in Brooklyn in this April 29 file photo.

ALBANY — Regions of New York experiencing rising numbers of COVID-19 deaths are now dealing with looming shortages of body bags, morgue space and other resources, according to leaders of groups representing coroners, funeral directors and county governments.

"We must develop a 'surge and flex’ model that can be used to devote support and assistance to coroners, medical examiners and funeral homes and cemeteries in the regions that are seeing higher increases in deaths," Stephen Acquario, the director of the New York State Association of Counties, said.

After a surge in COVID-19 deaths in New York last April, fatalities tapered off over the summer months, only to take off in tandem this fall with a surge in coronavirus infections. Testing positivity rates have been especially elevated in Western New York, the Finger Lakes and the Mohawk Valley in recent days. Earlier in the year, the epicenter for the spread had been in New York City and its suburbs.

The umbrella group for counties, along with the state Association of County Coroners and Medical Examiners and the state Funeral Directors Association, issued a plea for federal assistance that could be used to purchase body bags, personal protection equipment and other gear needed by those responding to COVID-19 fatalities.

"This global pandemic has overwhelmed resources in every county," said Scott Schmidt, the Orleans County coroner and president of the statewide group for medical examiners and coroners. "We have a sacred trust that we are charged with, but we can't do it without the appropriate protection that we need."

The request for federal aid comes as the state expects to receive 170,000 dozes of the Pfizer vaccine early in the coming week, followed by more than 300 doses of the Moderna vaccine Dec. 21, should the latter receive federal approval.

Sarah Ravenhall, director of the New York State Association of County Health Officials, said the county agencies will play an important role in offering vaccinations once the first groups to receive the doses — nursing home residents and staffers and hospital workers — are immunized.

"When the state says we have enough vaccine, we are ready to send them out to counties," Ravenhall told CNHI. "We are already situated to receive those products."

County health staffers, she said, are expected to participate in the vaccination effort from "points of dispensing" stations set up to be set up in dozens of locations across the state.

Pfizer's vaccine requires the doses to be stored in special refrigerators set at minus 94 degrees, equipment not normally found in doctors' offices.

Ravenhall said she expects the county health agencies will likely have the flexibility to offer the vaccines first to the most vulnerable populations, such as migrant farmworkers and members of secular communities living in close proximity to one another.

Offering a glimpse into factors behind the current surge in infections, state officials released long-awaited contact tracing data indicating a major source is so-called "living-room spread" — small gatherings in residences.

Based on 46,000 data points reviewed from September through November, the gatherings in homes accounted for 74% of New York's infections.

Interactions in hospitals and other health care settings were linked to 7.4% of the infections. While hair salons/barber shops and gyms have had to close in communities coping with "micro clusters" of the contagion, they accounted for 0.14% and 0.06%, respectively.

Restaurants and bars, which have been coping with reduced hours and limited to 50% of their maximum capacity for patrons (with stronger restrictions in places dealing with surges), are associated with 1.4% of the cases, according to the data.

At a press briefing, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said his administration is reviewing regional infection data and is expecting to update its approach to indoor dining in so-called orange zone areas. An "orange" designation is applied if a region is hospitals are experiencing a surge in hospitalizations or has a coronavirus testing positivity rate of greater than 4% for 10 days.

A region projected to hit 90% of hospital capacity goes to red zone, meaning all non-essential businesses, including restaurants and bars, are closed other than for takeout orders.

The recalibration of metrics being used for determining the level of restrictions is good news for operators of personal care services such as hair salons, as well as gyms. They will no longer be forced to close if they are in an orange zone. Some businesses have pointed out customers were getting around the restrictions simply by going to a competitor's shop a short distance away.

The gyms and salons, Cuomo said, "are not the problem that they were."

Cuomo suspended indoor dining in New York City, allowing restaurants to remain open only for takeout orders and outdoor dining.

The governor has allowed New York school districts to decide on their own whether to offer classroom learning or switch to remote instruction. Over the past two weeks, many have switched to online classes because of the spread. He encouraged schools to remain open where possible.

"What we’re seeing, schools are almost without exception, safer than local communities, in terms of infection rate," he said, adding, "The positivity rate (for schools) tends to be lower than the positivity rate in the surrounding community. My point is, if it is safer for the children to be in school, then have the children in school. If it’s safer for the teacher to be in school, then have the teacher in school. It’s less disruptive, the children get the education, you don’t have the same issues you have with remote learning."

Cuomo also said he is extending the state's current moratorium protecting renters of commercial real estate from evictions due to the ongoing pandemic.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com

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