Steve Lum had only been home a few weeks when he got the call to go to New York City to help with the influx of bodies from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lum, a funeral director with Kreamer & Lum Funeral Home & Crematory in Annville and Jonestown, first volunteered for the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team (DMORT) after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. He joined the federal organization on a more permanent basis the following year and has been deployed many times since then to deal with tragic occurrences around the country, from the aftermath of a Louisiana hurricane to the scene of a Buffalo, New York, plane crash.
“Any time there’s a mass tragedy, that’s when we’re called up,” Lum said. “It’s interesting being on the front lines, but you’re always remembering what you’re dealing with.”
In February, he was deployed to Travis Air Force Base in California to assist a Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT)—like DMORT, DMAT is an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—with repatriated Americans being released from affected cruise ships.
On that mission, he said, he and other team members helped the doctors and nurses process passengers, checking temperatures and gauging their conditions.
It wasn’t long after his return that he was ordered to New York. This time, he was dealing with bodies.
“Unfortunately, the virus is worse than I ever dreamed,” he said. “DMORT members from all over the country” were deployed to assist the New York City medical examiner’s office.
According to the Health and Human Services website, DMORTs are deployed “in the wake of a mass casualty event … to quickly and accurately identify victims and support local mortuary services. DMORTs reunite victims with their loved ones in a dignified, respectful manner.”
Dr. Andrew Stewart, who practices at the Fredericksburg Dental Center, announced on Facebook he was leaving with Lum for New York on March 31.
“We will be helping with the overwhelming task of the logistics of the deceased,” he wrote.
He posted a return message on April 15, noting his “two weeks of self-quarantine began yesterday.”
Stewart declined to be interviewed for this article, saying only he is “not permitted to discuss an ongoing mission.”
Lum said he and Stewart worked together during much of the deployment. For Lum, that meant daily 12-hour shifts, from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m.
It’s rare to be deployed twice in such a short span of time, he said.
“But it’s rare to have something like this, which is a lot bigger than we expected it to be,” Lum said. When he was working at Travis AFB, he said, “we never dreamed how it would spread across the country.”
DMORT members have already been told they might be deployed again in May, he said, and possibly again in the summer.
DMORTs, according to Health & Human Services, “are composed of funeral directors, medical examiners, pathologists, forensic anthropologists, finger print specialists, forensic odontologists, dental assistants, administrative specialists, and security specialists,” and “provide technical assistance and consultation on fatality management and mortuary affairs.”
The services they provide include tracking and documenting human remains and personal effects, establishing temporary morgue facilities, assisting in the determination of cause and manner of death, collecting ante-mortem data, collecting medical records, dental records or DNA of victims from next of kin to assist in victim identification, performing postmortem data collection, providing documentation during field retrieval and morgue operations, performing forensic dental pathology and forensic anthropology methods, and processing and re-interment of disinterred remains preparation.
For the New York assignment, Lum said he had about 48 hours notice before he had to leave.
“The streets were empty” when they arrived, he said. “There were hardly any vehicles out at all. That was probably when we realized that this was serious, and people were listening [to the stay-at-home orders] for the most part in the city.”
It was unusually quiet, he added—except each day at 7 p.m., when people all over the city lean out their windows or come onto their balconies and fire escapes to cheer and clap to show appreciation for medical professionals and other essential workers.
“Because there was no traffic, you could hear the cheers throughout the city,” Lum said. “You’d see people hanging out their windows, 10 stories up. … That was amazing, how everyone came together to show their support.”
They were initially assigned to work at the medical examiners’ offices in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn, Lum said. A lot of the work involved helping to clear out the morgues, which were full with unclaimed and unidentified bodies from before COVID-19 struck.
“We were making room for more patients as they came in,” Lum said.
One of the steps in clearing way was burying unclaimed bodies in mass graves on Hart Island, where New York City has taken its unclaimed dead for more than 150 years.
When a photographer took an aerial photo of the burials, many people believed the bodies were all COVID-19 victims. They weren’t, Lum said.
“We were freeing up more room in the morgue,” he explained. “But they weren’t coronavirus patients.”
That’s changed in recent days. According to the Washington Post, the average of 25 burials on the island each week has risen sharply to about 120. And Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office confirmed “it is likely” that people who have died of COVID-19 are now among those being interred, the Post reported.
The Post noted that the bodies are buried, unembalmed, in simple pinewood boxes in plots containing around 150 coffins. Each coffin is numbered, the report said, and locations are logged so families can reclaim bodies for reinterment elsewhere.
DMORT’s next task, Lum said, was helping to establish a new morgue in a Brooklyn warehouse to take the pressure off New York’s many hospitals, which had been storing bodies in refrigerated trucks until they could be released to a funeral home.
“The funeral homes are so backed up,” he said. “I spoke to one funeral director who said he usually handles 60 deaths a year. He’s already at 200.”
Handling bodies is tricky now, Lum said, because “we don’t always know how they died. So we treat everyone like it’s a possible coronavirus fatality.”
Many of the people had died at home, he said, so they weren’t under a doctor’s care at the time.
As a precaution, he said, everyone wears personal protective equipment including a full Tyvek suit, face mask, eye shields, additional apron and double or triple gloves.
“Everything has to be covered, because you don’t always know what you’re dealing with,” Lum said. Fortunately, he added, “DMORT is pretty well-stocked with supplies.”
Lum has no idea how many bodies he helped to process during his two-week stint in New York.
“I don’t know. That’s a number we could have gotten each evening, but I didn’t keep track. I just kept processing.”
The level of organization in a DMORT operation is incredible, he added.
“But you’re there to help. You don’t get into the details of how many people you’re processing,” Lum said. “You just remember what your purpose is. You’re there to help people through a traumatic time. We all know it needs to be done, and we’re doing what needs to be done.
“All the time, you’re dealing with the sadness of it all. People are hurting,” he added. “It’s humbling, to be on the front lines. It’s honor to be called on to help during these difficult times. And, even though the days and nights are long, it’s not forever.”
The government provides housing on deployment, Lum said, as well as a per diem for food expenses.
They used the money to help out some of the many “mom and pop delis” that were struggling to maintain their businesses during the pandemic.
“There were 50-some of us deployed with DMORT, and we were out to get food twice a day,” he said.
Sometimes, Lum said, he would stand more than 35 minutes waiting to get into a grocery store. He saw more people out by the time he left, he said—”but I don’t think they’re relaxing the standards. People are just getting stir-crazy, they want to get out.”
Overall, though, “it was amazing, people were taking it very seriously.”
Now that he’s home, Lum said he’s not required to self-quarantine.
“We get a daily text from the CDC, wanting to know our temperature. That will go on for two weeks,” he said. “I haven’t had a temperature, so we’re good.”
DMORT members also got a letter from the CDC stating they used proper precautions during their deployment.
“Because we were doing it the right way, we were able to go back to our normal jobs,” he said.
It’s not entirely normal for Lum, however. He noted that the National Funeral Directors Association has put out a call for help because of the overwhelming need for services. Also, he said, funeral directors don’t always know the cause of death when they pick someone up, which means extra precautions are required.
“We’re waiting for one right now who’s coming out of Canada who had COVID-19,” he said.
After so many weeks, Lum is hopeful the coronavirus is “on a downward spiral … but there’s no way to know that yet,” he said.
“We just have to do what we have to do, and do what they’re asking us to do. It’s not that hard— but I hope people can get back to work and make a living again,” he said. “I’m hoping things start getting back to normal soon.”
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The headline on this article was updated after publication. An earlier version said three weeks but the actual stay was closer to two weeks. We sincerely regret the error. We have also fixed an autocorrect error where “Tyvek” became “tieback.”