NYC hospitals overrun with bodies during COVID death surge, staffing shortages

There aren’t enough bodies — to move all the bodies!

Hospitals are scrambling to cope with the recent surge in COVID-19 fatalities across the city — with some shifting their dead patients between facilities amid backlogs at the city Medical Examiner’s Office and local crematoriums, The Post has learned.

“The whole hospital system is at capacity with patients and, of course, that includes the morgues,” one person familiar with the situation said.

A source at NYC Health + Hospitals, which operates the city’s public health care system, said, “We have so far been able to manage deaths by moving them from one hospital to another and getting additional storage units.”

A hospital official also said the Medical Examiner’s Office was “slammed” because it doesn’t have enough staffers to identify and transfer all the bodies in its morgues.

“Their coolers are stacking up,” the source said.

On Tuesday, the crisis even led the ME’s Office to reinstate the daily “Citywide Hospital Morgue Census” it established in April 2020 during the first wave of the pandemic that made the Big Apple the world’s epicenter of coronavirus fatalities.

A source told The Post that hospitals are at capacity with COVID-19 patients.
Paul Martinka
The city Medical Examiner's Office has been renting large refrigerator trucks to store more dead COVID-19 patients.
Coolers are “stacking up,” a source told The Post about the recent death surge.
Paul Martinka

The online form’s mandatory questions include, “In Days, How Long Have You Been Holding Your Oldest Case?”

The Greater New York Hospital Association also held a private, online webinar Wednesday to discuss “mitigation measures” to deal with delays in “decedent retrieval” by the ME’s Office and funeral homes.

The GNYHA, which represents more than 160 hospitals and health care systems statewide, cited “numerous factors, including an increase in citywide fatalities and unprecedented staffing shortages brought on by the current Omicron wave.”

A general view of the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner located at 520 First Avenue in New York, NY on May 14, 2020.
Funeral directors slammed the Medical Examiner’s Office for unprecedented delays in cremations.
Christopher Sadowski
An ambulance pulls into the triage area of the Montefiore Medical Center's emergency room on April 9, 2020 in New York City.
The Greater New York Hospital Association blamed the “current Omicron wave,” for causing staff shortages across state hospitals.
Getty Images

New York City’s daily deaths from COVID-19 surged from 65 on Jan. 1 to 128 on Jan. 11, with incomplete data showing a decline to 55 on Sunday, according to official city figures.

But disease-transmission rates are still high in all five boroughs amid the continuing spread of the highly contagious but far less deadly Omicron variant, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Funeral directors said there’s a seven-day wait — up from just one — for cremations in and around New York City due to increased demand.

Kings County Hospital.
Daily COVID-19 deaths surged across the city during the spread of the Omicron variant.
Paul Martinka

“The system is flooded and we’ve been working our asses off,” one funeral director said as he waited outside the ME’s Office in Manhattan.

“I’m getting two bodies now that I’m not cremating until Saturday because the crematory’s backed up.”

The funeral director added that a “good crematory” with six burners can handle “maybe 18 bodies a day.”

The Manhattan Medical Examiner's office on East 30th Street and First Avenue.
The ME’s Office began using the “Citywide Hospital Morgue Census” again.
James Messerschmidt
The Manhattan Medical Examiner's office on East 30th Street and First Avenue on January 19, 2022.
An ME Office spokesperson said the census was brought back because of Omicron’s spread.
James Messerschmidt

“If somebody gets sick, then it slows down,” he added. “You can’t throw five bodies in at once and pick out the ashes.”

A spokesperson for the ME’s Office said it “has instituted measures in the past week to expedite removals and relieve hospitals experiencing increased caseloads and limited storage capacity.”

Spokesperson Julie Bolcer also said the daily hospital morgue census “was instituted again as part of the response to Omicron variant.”

COVID cases in NYC surged in the first 11 days in January 2022.
COVID cases in NYC surged in the first 11 days in January 2022.

“If hospitals need [the ME’s Office] to step in and assist with storage, the census will show that,” Bolcer added.

GNYHA spokesman Brian Conway said, “Staffing shortages worsened by the Omicron surge have impacted all stakeholders … involved in managing fatalities (by no means all of them COVID-related) in New York City. As a result, hospitals have had to manage higher numbers of decedents than before the current Omicron surge. OCME recently expanded its capacity, which is easing pressure on the hospitals. GNYHA is coordinating closely with hospitals across the City, OCME, NYC Emergency Management, and others to help manage the situation.”