(CNN)New York City is now operating a long-term "disaster morgue" in Brooklyn where bodies will be stored frozen inside trucks -- a move designed to help funeral directors overwhelmed during the coronavirus pandemic, officials said.
A long-term 'disaster morgue' has been set up at Brooklyn's 39th Street Pier to help New York City's overwhelmed funeral system
The morgue is operating at Brooklyn's 39th Street Pier, the Office of Chief Medical Examiner said this week.
New York City has been the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, bearing nearly one-fifth, if not more, of the country's reported 71,000-plus coronavirus-related deaths.
The deaths, coming in a relatively short space of time, have strained funeral homes' ability to keep up with the number of funerals and cremations needed -- and also their capacity to store bodies awaiting these services.
Funeral homes have been turning down cremations because they couldn't store the bodies, for instance, and bodies have been placed in refrigerated trailers.
The freezer trucks at the Brooklyn morgue are meant to free up space at already existing morgues and refrigerated trailers, city officials have said.
This will ease the pressure on the city's funeral industry, said Michael Lanotte, executive director of the New York State Funeral Directors Association.
"The additional morgue operating hours will also help funeral directors by providing them with evening hours for transfers, since they spend the vast majority of the daytime hours conducting funerals, making arrangements and answering calls from families seeking their services," Lanotte said.
The morgue will be open each day until 10:30 p.m., according to the office of Brooklyn borough President Eric Adams.
The city's struggle to keep up with death was highlighted last week, when four trucks with as many as 60 bodies were discovered on a busy street outside a Brooklyn funeral home.
Officials removed bodies from the property, and the state suspended the funeral home's license. The funeral home had been overwhelmed and ran out of room for bodies, which were awaiting cremation, according to a law enforcement source. At least one truck lacked refrigeration, with body bags on ice, one source said.
The spike in deaths has strained cemetery operators, too.
At Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, cremations have jumped by as many as 70 to 130 per day, and burials have more than doubled to a dozen each day, cemetery president Richard Moylan told CNN last week.
"We're booked through the middle of May, when six weeks ago you could just call up and say, 'I'm coming in tomorrow or, even sometimes, I'm coming in an hour.' Now, sadly, you need an appointment," Moylan said.
New York City has accumulated more than 13,900 confirmed coronavirus deaths, and has reported another 5,300 deaths suspected to be linked to the virus, according to its website.
The city's medical examiner's office gave details about the morgue and other policy changes during a conference call Monday with funeral home directors, morgue operators, faith leaders and morgue and cemetery operators, Adams said.
Among those changes: The city will distribute personal protective equipment to cemetery workers and funeral home workers, according to Adams' office.
"We remain dedicated to supporting the funerary industry and the families they serve in these complex times through streamlining our processes and offering expanded pickup times to funeral directors working with us," New York City Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Barbara Sampson said Monday.
"Treating the dead with dignity and respect remains the guiding principle of our work."