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These Are the Heartbreaking Belongings That Covid Victims Left Behind

When virus patients died, New York hospitals were faced with a sensitive problem: What to do with thousands of personal items?

By Andrea Salcedo

June 29, 2020
ImageMount Sinai Hospital collected and stored Rafael Eli’s belongings soon after his death in April.
Mount Sinai Hospital collected and stored Rafael Eli’s belongings soon after his death in April.

Rafael Eli, 68, stopped breathing in the early hours of April 16 after having spent 18 days on a ventilator at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan.

Every day, his sister Myriam Eli, who lives in Florida, had called Mount Sinai to inquire about her brother, who had been diagnosed with Covid-19 after having been hospitalized in March.

After his death, Ms. Eli called the hospital several times to inquire about the whereabouts of her brother’s belongings.

“They couldn’t find them for a while,” Ms. Eli, 66, said.

Across New York, workers in patient services at hospitals have had to figure out what to do with the thousands of cellphones, chargers, walkers, canes, hearing aids, dentures, glasses, clothing, shoes, wallets, Bibles, jewelry, among other items, that have been left behind by patients who have died after contracting Covid-19.

One hospital had so many of these items in April that the staff stored them in a room that had been previously used to keep the belongings of patients scheduled for surgery.

By early May, another hospital, St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, stored about 140 unclaimed items — some kept in bags used for biohazard material — in a room adjacent to its morgue.

“There was no room for neither the deceased nor the property,” said Demetrius Long, 60, director of security at St. Barnabas, who oversaw the hospital’s coronavirus fatality management plan.

Many items have remained unclaimed, in many cases because hospital officials have been unable to locate the next of kin. In turn, they have become a symbolic reminder of the toll wrought by a pandemic that has killed more than 20,000 New Yorkers.

When the number of casualties started rising in mid-April, the Bureau of Funeral Directing in the New York City Health Department and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner issued guidelines outlining the best practices for health care facilities to safely manage the belongings of patients who died of Covid-19.

To deal with the surge of items, many hospitals quickly adjusted their property management services.

At St. Barnabas, a deceased person’s items no longer accompanied them to the hospital’s morgue. Instead, the items were stored in the morgue’s viewing room, where a team of three hospital workers would list them in a spreadsheet, said Mr. Long, the hospital’s security director.
Image
Demetrius Long, right, director of security at St. Barnabas Hospital, who oversaw the fatality management program, and James Andino, associate director of security and morgue manager.
Demetrius Long, right, director of security at St. Barnabas Hospital, who oversaw the fatality management program, and James Andino, associate director of security and morgue manager.

Several hospitals, including St. Barnabas and N.Y.U. Langone-Tisch Hospital in Manhattan, extended their normal 30-day policy for family or friends to retrieve items.
The New York Times

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