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Dispatch From A Coronavirus Morgue Truck Worker: "They Write A Check For Your First Day, In Case You Don't Come Back"

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A body wrapped in plastic is loaded onto a refrigerated container truck used as a temporary morgue by medical workers wearing personal protective equipment due to COVID-19 concerns, at Brooklyn Hospital Center in Brooklyn on March 21, 2020 John Minchillo/AP/Shutterstock

In order to handle the thousands of bodies of COVID-19 victims, the city has set up dozens of refrigerated trailers outside medical facilities. They are largely staffed by temporary workers, many of whom have operated in extremely difficult and often gruesome conditions. One of those workers, Erik Frampton, 46, emailed WNYC reporter Arun Venugopal about his experience. He and his husband run a boutique art framing business, but had to suspend their business because of the coronavirus outbreak. This account is based on that email and subsequent interviews; it contains graphic descriptions of conditions inside the trucks.

My friend got this gig through a neighbor and offered it to me. We were both welcome additions. There were about 10 in our crew, with two working at a satellite facility.

I lurched. I said yes. Without knowing why I was doing it, without knowing if I was at risk, without knowing what the cost would be.

We are mostly working in one of two full size 20 ton air-cooled trailers. Each can hold about 110 bodies.

They have obviously run out of body bags and space, with the heavy black bags being replaced with very thin white ones. Some are barely in the bags because they have ripped so many times. Almost all of the remains still have their tubes in them, especially the ventilator connections. Most of the index fingers clearly read “Covidean”.

At the main facility on Grand Concourse, yesterday morning began with a jumble of bodies in the trailer. No shelves had been installed yet. The morgue inside the hospital was completely filled with bodies on stretchers, also filling the room outside the refrigerators.

The bodies inside the trailer were not well marked. Sometimes we were forced to open up the bags to find ankle or wrist bracelets. Installing the three-tier shelves was delayed because they were being built hurriedly off-site and kept arriving through 4 p.m. At that point half of the shelving had been installed and bodies two abreast had been hoisted and manhandled and lifted into place.

If I could describe the utter chaos of needing to remove 50 to 80 bodies in a jigsaw arrangement in order to maneuver the shelving over them, I would. But words escape me.

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Shelves are constructed in a hospital parking lot to be used inside the portable morgue for those deceased from covid-19. Braulio Jatar/SOPA Images/Shutterstock

At the satellite facility two miles away, the trailer was more orderly, but there was no coherent inventory. Most of my first four hours yesterday was hand-writing a master inventory list with MR numbers (a dead person’s digits). Three bodies were not found for funeral directors who showed up to collect them.

We are dressed in two layers of body aprons to prevent liquids from splashing on us. Two layered masks--hospital grade--and unlimited gloves. We do not know if the bodies can generate aspirating [COVID-19] particles during their continuing leakage and decomposition, and constant temperature flux.

I absolutely protect myself to the limit of the equipment they provide me. At least, I hope I do, but I’m probably just naive.

We use hospital bed sheets where bags have failed. There are tons of blood and fecal matter, etc., that have leaked out. The floor is sometimes streaked with it.

It pays $75 per hour. They write a check for your first day, in case you don’t come back.

I think I’m scared of dying. I don’t want to die. I’m definitely scared.

My husband’s fears have gone from, “I completely trust you to protect me,” to “I cannot believe you’ve done this to me.”

We are isolating, in a weird way. We’re not touching. We’re not kissing.

But we sleep in the same bed. So it’s all just farce. Clearly the system is overwhelmed. Just caught completely off guard. Funeral directors I’ve met have complimented our operation as well run and organized, describing other facilities as more chaotic. Hard to believe.

arrow Courtesy of Erik Frampton

Today has been smoother. The satellite here has successfully connected 13 bodies so far with funeral homes. We are handwriting the time of transfer, name, authorized person, etc. After being forced to shrug my shoulders several times yesterday, this is a huge relief.

I know that at least one body is missing in action. The family has sent a photo. That must be sooooo hard on them.

I know that most people go to a funeral and see a body that looks loved and manicured. Families should not know what is going on with their loved ones’ remains in this situation . . . . We have to really move them . . . and it is difficult, probably dangerous, messy. And they are sooooooooo heavy!

My mournfulness for each body, my respect for each body is a literal imagination of who knows them. Who's calling about them? What person could not visit them when they were, you know, in isolation before they had to go on respirator and they couldn't talk anymore? Who wants to know where that person is right now?

I don't have any mournfulness for the vessel that I'm handling. I guess if I did, I wouldn't be able to do this. But I do constantly think of the people who want to know, where is their person? I can assure them that person is safe. Cold. Respected.

I think of a Jennifer, I think of Moyshe, I think of a Santiago, I think of a Melissa, I think of a Bessey and a Betty, I think of an Hernan.

I can't stop thinking of them.

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