Front-line workers responsible for dealing with the unprecedented number of residential deaths in all five boroughs believe the lack of testing of the corpses they encounter for COVID-19 means officials trying to contain the virus lack some key information.

Throughout the pandemic, the Trump Administration, as well as the city and state, have been criticized for the lack of available testing for the public, first-responders and other essential workers who can't work remotely.

Log Deaths in Institutions

The official count of coronavirus deaths in New York State has been based on data driven by deaths recorded in hospital or congregate-care facilities.

The Fire Department said that early this month the city averaged well over 200 residential fatal cardiac arrests daily.

Emergency Medical Technicians, NYPD Detectives, Police Officers, Medicolegal Investigators, Morgue Technicians and drivers assigned to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner all play a role in handling such cases.

And the National Guard has stepped in to help pick up the bodies to reduce a massive backlog, with funeral directors long operating at capacity.

"We are seeing four to six times the normal number of at-home deaths," said Michael Lanotte, the executive director of the New York State Funeral Directors Association. "We too have concerns about [personal protective equipment] and our members are running low."

The New York Times reported the OCME has established 45 mobile morgues.

Underestimating Toll?

Union representatives for the workers involved are concerned that city, state and Federal policy-makers lack awareness of how serious the toll is in some neighborhoods.

Joe Puleo, president of District Council 37 Local 983 represents 40 Motor Vehicle Operators assigned to the OCME who work with Morgue Technicians and are responsible for picking up the bodies. He said the union has been scrambling to provide PPE for his members and is concerned that they are being told "the corpses are not as contagious as living breathing humans."

"These bodies should be tested—it's basic occupational and public health," Mr. Puleo said.

Oren Barzilay, president of DC 37's Local 2507, which represents EMTs, agreed, adding that testing the corpses would also give their families peace of mind. "But it would also give us the level of detail you need to map the hot spots," he said, adding that Mayor de Blasio's daily briefing should include the number of deaths at home.

Make Public More Aware

"You can say upfront these may or may not be COVID-19 related, but it would give the public and the media the situational awareness of what is actually happening outside the confines of the hospital in the communities we serve," he said.

Vincent Variale, president of DC 37's Local 3621, which represents EMS Officers, said he believed government officials at all levels had an incentive to  undercount the deaths.

"The corpses should absolutely be tested, but I don't know if the city, state or Federal government really want to know that number," he said. "We have so many people in leadership positions saying 'who knew?' or 'nobody saw this coming.' "

Every at-home death requires an NYPD response to secure the scene until the remains are removed. In addition to a uniformed officer, Detectives are dispatched to interview family members and make a preliminary evaluation that includes taking a picture of the deceased.

Members Feel Stress

Paul DiGiacomo, president of the Detectives' Endowment Association, said in a phone interview that the volume of the calls "was taking a real toll on our members because there is a lot of stress that would not normally be part of a natural cause of death, and now there are hundreds of these every day."

He said his members approached each residence aware of the grief felt by the families. "We are there to console them. And at the same time, a lot of our members have also lost loved ones," Mr. DiGiacomo said.

"Our primary concern is for the safety of our members and their families and this is a very disturbing reality that they can take this home to their families," he said. "We have 800 Detectives out sick, and 300 tested positive out of 5,400 and we lost Detective Cedric Dixon."

At his April 8 press briefing, Mayor de Blasio said his administration would make an effort to account for residential deaths.

"I've been over this with our health colleagues that this used to be a very, very rare thing in New York City and suddenly it's jumped up," he said. "And, obviously, the only thing that's changed is COVID-19. So, the Health Department knows what they're doing, but what I would say as a layman is, let's assume that with this kind of increase, the vast majority of these are related to COVID-19, you know, directly, indirectly, and start counting them."


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