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Boro prepares for fall’s swine flu cases

City officials are bracing for a surge of swine flu cases this fall and funeral home directors need to be prepared to accommodate a possible related 50,000 to 85,000 deaths, the director of the Metropolitan Funeral Directors Association told a gathering of funeral home representatives in Forest Hills last week.

“As funeral directors, we really need to know what we’re about to face,” Martin Kasdan said. “When swine flu comes back, it could possibly be devastating.”

About 15 officials from area funeral homes attended the meeting sponsored by the MetFDA at Schwartz Brothers in Forest Hills Aug. 6. The MetFDA is holding four meetings in the city and one in Westchester this month to better prepare funeral homes for a possible increase in deaths as well as a rise in the number of sick and absent employees.

MetFDA officials said they were also relaying information from the meetings to city agencies, including the city Health Department and the medical examiner’s office, with which they have been working in preparation for a potential second wave of swine flu.

Swine flu, otherwise known as H1N1, first hit the city in May in a group of St. Francis Preparatory students in Fresh Meadows. The outbreak occurred after the students had arrived home from a trip to Mexico, where the World Health Organization said the global pandemic originated.

As of July, more than 900 New Yorkers had been hospitalized with H1N1 and 47 had died, including two Queens residents, according to city statistics.

Flushing resident Mitchell Wiener, an assistant principal at IS 238 in Hollis, became the city’s first swine flu casualty May 17. A second unnamed woman from Queens died from swine flu May 24, according to the city.

City residents continue to come down with H1N1, but the numbers have continually decreased since the spike of cases in May, health officials said.

“The Health Department monitors influenza-like illnesses every day in New York City,” said city Health Commissioner Thomas Farley. “While every hospitalization is concerning and every death is a tragedy, our surveillance data indicate that the number of people newly infected is declining.”

The Centers for Disease Control has predicted a 2.1 percent to 3.3 percent death rate among those who come down with swine flu this fall, which translates into an additional 52,000 to 86,000 deaths in the city over a three-month period, Kasdan said.

“It’s mind-boggling,” Kasdan said of the possible death rate. “Is the CDC right? Who knows — hopefully not. But you need to be prepared.”

The potential upswing in fatalities poses a wide array of questions for city officials and funeral directors, such as where to store bodies, how to hold funerals in a climate where swine flu is passed easily from person to person and how many extra supplies will be needed.

“You may have to wait for funerals because the family is sick or until the cemetery says they’re able to do the burial,” Kasdan said. “You might have to store bodies longer.”

Kasdan said the city medical examiner is already looking into possibly using vacant city buildings to store bodies, and the city has contracted for a unit to be built in Germany that will handle hundreds of bodies.

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at agustafson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 174.

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