Forgotten Front Line: COVID-19 pushing death care industry to its limits

Forgotten Front Line: COVID-19 pushing death care industry to its limits

News 12 Staff

Apr 27, 2020, 9:50 PM

Updated 1,492 days ago

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Funeral workers say they are running out of protective equipment. And for the first time in history, there aren’t enough of them to handle the growing death toll.
Jennifer Graziano is a fourth-generation funeral director from White Plains who has seen it all: plane crashes, homicides, even terror attacks. None she says have pushed the death care industry to its limits like the coronavirus outbreak.
“I've grown up in this industry. It’s a situation I've never heard of or seen,” she says.
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While the coronavirus death rate across the tri-state area is slowly decreasing, she says the number of cases is still overwhelming in New York City. That tidal wave of grief is now crashing on suburban funeral homes across Westchester, Long Island and beyond.

"What we are seeing now is everyone from the city migrating north out east to the Island as well. And the reason being the funeral homes there are being stretched to capacity. They will answer the phone and say that they just can't help them,” she says.

Graziano says her phone rings non-stop from people who have tried five, 10, even a dozen other funeral homes closer to home.
But in many cases, the grief gets placed on hold. Casket manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the surge in demand, too.
Overburdened hospitals have led to death certificate delays. And there's even a backlog at crematoriums.

"Crematories are running 300 times capacity,” says David Fleming, the legislative director of the New York State Association of Cemeteries.

So, that means, a loved one who dies today likely won't be cremated for weeks.

“We are well into May, depending on the facility. Keeping in mind there are four crematories the boroughs of New York, five in the entire metropolitan area servicing almost 9 million people."
Medical experts say death does not guarantee protection from coronavirus, so the same PPE that hospitals scramble to secure, is just as important for the “final” responders.
"There is not enough PPE to protect our employees and that's a real concern for us,” says Fleming. "We have to protect them just like any other health care facility.
Graziano says they credit doctors and nurses but perhaps the funeral industry represents a forgotten front line.

Their pleas for more gear have gone unanswered, so News 12 reached out to FEMA, county and state leaders for answers.
All of them promised to step up supplies of PPE to death care workers.
Graziano says even harder than waiting is knowing there's little she can do to comfort the bereaved, since social distancing means mourning at arm’s length.
“We never realized a value of a hug until we couldn't give it,” she says.
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