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Sao Paulo exhumes old graves to make space for surging COVID-19 burials

Brazil’s biggest city on Thursday sped up efforts to empty old graves, making room for a soaring number of COVID-19 deaths as Sao Paulo city hall registered record daily burials this week.

Gravediggers in the Vila New Cachoeirinha cemetery in the city’s northern reaches worked in white hazmat suits to open the tombs of people buried years ago, bagging decomposed remains for removal to another location.

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Relocating remains is standard in cemetery operations, said the municipal secretary responsible for funeral services, in a statement. But it has taken on renewed urgency as Brazil suffers its worse coronavirus wave since the pandemic began over a year ago.

On Wednesday, Brazil’s health ministry registered its highest daily COVID-19 death toll for the second day in a row, with 3,869 people succumbing to the virus.

Brazil’s outbreak is the second-deadliest in the world after the United States, averaging about 3,000 deaths and 75,500 new cases per day over the past week – a rate that has climbed steadily since February.

Sao Paulo has also resorted to late-night burials to keep up with demand, with some cemeteries authorized to stay open until 10 p.m.. In the Vila Formosa cemetery, workers in masks and full protective gear have been digging rows of graves under flood lights and a full moon this week.

The coffins have followed. A 32-year-old man lowered down in a plain wooden box. A 77-year-old woman, whose masked relatives gathered near the grave.

The city of Sao Paulo registered 419 burials on Tuesday, the most since the pandemic began. If burials continue at that pace, city hall said it will need to take more contingency measures, without specifying.

Brazil currently accounts for about a quarter of COVID-19 daily deaths worldwide, more than any other country.

Infectious disease experts warn that it will only get worse, given President Jair Bolsonaro’s attacks on efforts to restrict movement and a slow rollout of vaccines.

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