The Toll of Setting Up a Mobile Coronavirus Morgue

Len Copicotto helped get power to one of New York City's makeshift morgues brought in to house those who have not survived the coronavirus.
Len Copicotto

Len Copicotto helped get power to one of New York City's makeshift morgues brought in to house those who have not survived the coronavirus.

In theory, the work was not unlike what Len Copicotto was used to. An electrician who’s spent much of his career responding to areas in times of crisis, the 40-year-old Queens man knew how to show up ready to do what was needed.

And so when the assignment came down from the New York City’s Office of Emergency Management to get power to the refrigerated trailer parked outside Forest Hills Hospital, Copicotto and fellow members of Local Union No. 3 IBEW put their heads down and worked to make that happen.

“It wasn’t real until you see this 53-by-13 mobile morgue [that you think], ‘Oh, this is going to be for humans. This is going to be family members, neighbors, friends, reduced to a stacking pile,’” he told

The trailer would house those who didn’t survive COVID-19, a makeshift mortuary for just some of the city’s growing number of dead as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“This is our trade, this is our skill, we’re going to offer what we can offer,” Copicotto said. “It’s very surreal accepting, like, I just installed power for a device that’s going to handle this disaster.”

His is the work of a silent first responder, whose classification as “essential worker” both underscores the importance of his role in keeping the city from bursting at its seams and puts him at the frontlines of a battle some seem to still need convincing is happening.

“You have some people who are in denial of the situation, some are aloof of the situation, some are hyperaware,” Copicotto said. “There were coworkers of mine … who believed this was a hoax the whole time, that this was just the flu. It wasn’t until they were parking body carts in front of our tool room that they realized this was real.”

Copicotto was determined to do his part in driving home just how serious a crisis the coronavirus pandemic was and took to social media. He posted a photo of the trailer, an omen of what medical experts were expecting to face in the coming days, and a shot of himself. In it, he’s wearing a mask, obscuring all of his face, except his eyes, which appear exhausted.

“For people who still think this is a joke, a hoax ... or something to not take serious,” Copicotto wrote. “As of this post, 513 NYers [sic] are dead. With exponential infections estimate at doubling every four days… if you don’t follow the rules and stay home, practice proper social distancing when you go out, this is where you, someone you know, work with or love is going to be stacked.

“Stop f****** around, follow all safety protocols to flatten the infection curve … and to those outside of NYC, your time is coming soon too … take care of each other.”

Copicotto’s warning was posted March 27. In the week that would follow, the number of cases in the state would neared 115,000, while the death toll surpassed 3,500. Nationally, more than 8,000 people had lost their lives to COVID-19 by Sunday.

As the figures related to the pandemic continued to grow, so too did the politicization of the crisis. Elected officials on both sides of the aisle pointed fingers at the opposite party for who was to blame for the crisis.

When congressional Democrats moved to create of a new House select committee to oversee the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, President Trump called the move a “witch hunt.” And even Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S.’s top medical expert on the coronavirus pandemic and a member of Trump's coronavirus task force, was forced to take on personal around-the-clock security after receiving threats to his personal safety.

Copicotto was hoping to cut through the muck with his blunt and sobering message.

“Hopefully we don’t live in bubbles, but we all do. And we all have friends who, based on their media [consumption], the echo chambers they’re in, they’re going to believe what they want to believe,” Copicotto said. “Hopefully, I’ve earned enough trust, that [by reading the post] they’ll understand this is not the flu, it’s not a hoax, it’s not stabilized, it’s not going to disappear by Easter – it’s a situation that’s escalating. And I’d rather do the right thing and communicate with people, bring on whatever detractors.

“I did my duty, I reported what I saw.”

It isn’t the first disaster Copicotto’s responded to. He worked in downtown Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy and in St. Croix and Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. But this was different.

“I knew going into Puerto Rico, and we’re living out of the stadium in Puerto Rico, I knew there were going to be conditions; we were worried about contaminated water, the logistics of the mountains, the way that they get power,” he said. “This is something that’s not in my wheelhouse; it’s an invisible enemy.”

Under normal circumstances, Copicotto’s job is to trace out every circuit within the hospital so that when repairs within the facility occur, no critical equipment is cut off. The role is a piece of the puzzle that so many likely don’t even realize exists but is essential for a hospital to function.

He’s based Long Island Jewish Medical Center, a 583-bed clinical and academic hospital within the Northwell Health system in the New Hyde Park area of Queens. That Friday, Copicotto was sent to Long Island Jewish Forest Hills Hospital, a 312-bed community teaching hospital. “A very small hospital,” he said. “A lot of elderly up there.”

It was quiet as he worked, with many nonessential workers forced or choosing to remain home and off the streets. But hospital staffers occasionally gathered outside, and the tension they were under all but palpable. “All I could see from the outside was the stress on the engineers and the house staff; beyond the doctors and nurses that are working, the hospitals have house electricians, plumbers, engineers, cleaning staff, all trying to understand what their situation is,” he said.

Copicotto finished his day at Forest Hills Hospital and headed home, and as he did every day after work for weeks, removed all his clothing and dashed to the shower, careful to not touch anything on his way there. “I basically spent the last month coming home and undressing as if I’d done asbestos removal,” he said.

Then came the day his team was down to their last box of N95 masks, the much sought-after respiratory protective devices designed to filter out airborne particles that so many working in and around areas known to contain COVID-19 patients have come to rely on and then be made to do without.

“I knew I had the protection to say, ‘listen guys, I’m here for doing any sort of emergency work, I’ll be the first one at the door, but if it comes to a basic construction operation, I’d rather stay home,’” Copicotto, a leader within his union, said.

He’s since gone into self-isolation, having no contact with his wife or his elderly parents to ensure he doesn’t unwittingly pass onto them the coronavirus. “I don’t want to risk infecting other people by being asymptomatic,” he said.

On Friday, he was approved by the CDC to be tested Saturday in Connecticut as a high-risk asymptomatic hospital worker. Until he knows he’s not carrying the virus, he’ll remain isolated. And even after the test results are in, his outlook on the virus will remain.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t say I had anxiety,” he said. “I was always taught if you’re flying through a storm on an airplane and going through a lot of turbulence, look at the eyes of the flight attendants, the crew. If they’re OK, you’re fine. The epidemiologists, the nurses, the anesthesiologists … if they’re nervous, fearful and aware of the situation … you should feel nervous, fearful and aware of the situation.”

On his own and without his family, he’s remained engaged in social media and committed to stressing the importance of taking the pandemic seriously.

“Try to explain to people, I see some trying to make jokes [about the coronavirus] online … if this was 9/11, the planes have just hit the buildings,” he said. “If you’re making jokes now, people are just starting to jump and the Towers haven’t even come down. We’ve just started.”