About 170 National Guard troops and 49 active-duty soldiers have taken on the grim task of assisting New York City with the removal of the growing number of bodies of those who die alone during the novel coronavirus pandemic, according to Guard officials.
"They've been involved in, and continue to be involved, unfortunately, in mortuary affairs," Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said at a Pentagon briefing Wednesday. He was referring to the troops assisting the city's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) in the removal of "unattended" deceased.
"There is a capacity in the National Guard to deal with it," he said, as troops back up the overwhelmed ME's office by going into apartments and homes where someone has died without family or a doctor in attendance.
Lengyel said Maj. Gen. Ray Shields, adjutant general of the New York National Guard, told him that "on a normal, non-COVID sort of a day" about 25 bodies need to be removed from homes.
"Those numbers are up significantly, and 150 people a day are needing to be taken" to the ME's office for examination of the cause of death, Lengyel said.
The brunt of the task has been assigned to 32 members of the Fast Search and Recovery Team (FSRT) of the Air National Guard's 107th Attack Wing, based at Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, said Eric Durr, director of public affairs for the New York National Guard.
The FSRT, trained to assist in natural disasters and the recovery of personnel in chemical or biological attacks, has been assigned to assist the ME's office; they are backed up by another 140 regular Guard personnel now on duty in the city, Durr said.
In addition, 49 active-duty soldiers from the Army's 54th Quartermaster Company have been assigned to assist with mortuary affairs in the city, he added.
There is little sign that demand for National Guard assistance at the ME's office, which normally has a capacity of about 900 bodies in its morgue facilities, will taper off soon.
To deal with the overflow, the office has sent refrigerator trucks to local hospitals for temporary storage of the deceased.
At a news conference Friday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he is "cautiously optimistic" that the upward curve of new coronavirus cases in the state and city is flattening.
"The bad news is that we continue to lose a tremendous number of lives," he said.
Wednesday was the worst day in the state for coronavirus deaths, with 799 reported. That was up from 777 Thursday, the vast majority of them in New York City, Cuomo said.
New York's OCME prepared a plan in 2008 for dealing with an influenza pandemic, but the spread of COVID-19 appears to have gone beyond anything that could have been foreseen.
"The concept for managing deaths due to a [pandemic influenza] event is simple: The OCME will recover, process, and hold decedents from residential and healthcare facility locations until private sector entities are able to manage final disposition," according to the 2008 plan. But local funeral homes have been unable to handle the volume.
"The goal of this OCME response strategy is to honor life by respectfully managing one's death," the plan states.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.