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New York City's contingency plan for 'biological outbreaks' includes mobile refrigerator units for dead bodies and mass graves dug by inmates

New York City's contingency plan for 'biological outbreaks' includes mobile refrigerator units for dead bodies and mass graves dug by inmates
New York City's contingency plan for 'biological outbreaks' includes mobile refrigerator units for dead bodies and mass graves dug by inmates

The plan was developed in 2008 and imagines an incident that would cause a 2% mortality rate — around the same rate as the coronavirus.

  • If the coronavirus outbreak were to get out of control in New York City, government officials have a plan for how to deal with all the dead bodies.
  • The plan, developed by the chief medical examiner in 2008, would see refrigerated units placed outside hospitals to store the dead temporarily, and mass graves dug by Rikers Island prisoners.
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As of Tuesday, there have been only 25 coronavirus cases identified in New York City. But with now over 100 cases in the state, residents are wondering whether the city is prepared to deal with a major outbreak. 

One thing the city does have is a plan for how to deal with an influx of deaths caused by a pandemic.

The plan was developed by the city's late chief medical examiner, Charles Hirsch, in 2008, in response to concerns that Bird Flu would cause the next pandemic influenza. But as Hirsch states in the report, the plan can be used to tackle "other biological outbreaks" that cause mass fatalities.

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New York City's Hart Island, where inmates would bury bodies in a mass grave in the event of a pandemic, is seen in 2016. Mike Segar/Reuters

The plan was developed for a pandemic that has a 2% mortality rate, the same approximate death rate as the coronavirus.

At the time, New York City had a population of 8.2 million, so it was estimated that the city would be dealing with more than 51,000 dead bodies.

To deal with this influx, refrigerated units would be placed outside hospitals to increase their mortuary capacity. These units can hold between 9-44 bodies until they can be cremated or buried.

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Metropolitan Transportation Authority worker Duane Clark works to sanitize surfaces at the Avenue X subway station, Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. The MTA is stepping up efforts to sanitize cars and stations as fears mount over the coronavirus. AP Photo/Kevin Hagen

Inmates on Rikers Island would be transported to Hart Island to dig mass graves where the dead could be buried, and cremation efforts would be ramped up.

Currently, Hart Island, which once housed a prison for Confederate soldiers, has two prepared mass graves that could accommodate 19,200 bodies, but there is another site that has yet to be cleared.

New York inmates are already being put to work during the coronavirus outbreak. On Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that prisoners at a Washington County correctional facility are making hand sanitizer in the face of shortages around the country. Their goal is to make 100,000 gallons a week to supply schools, government agencies, and other prisons.

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