Queens Heroes

The Unisphere in Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens.
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The Unisphere in Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens.

Queens Heroes

The locals who are leading the borough through the coronavirus crisis.
July 12, 2020

A few years ago, perhaps the big story in Queens was its growing reputation as a tourist destination. Then, in 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez upset then-Rep. Joe Crowley, drawing attention to a rising progressive movement in Western Queens that went on to pressure Amazon into scuttling a plan to build a second headquarters in Long Island City. Over the past few months, however, the borough’s biggest storyline has been the devastation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more people in Queens than in any other county in New York. 

Yet Queens pulled together in response to the crisis. At the peak of the pandemic, it was all hands on deck at the borough’s hospitals. Members of the community delivered food to the newly unemployed, while business leaders took steps to protect local shops. Elected officials passed legislation to protect tenants and stepped up to serve their most vulnerable constituents.

So this year, we’re not just doing a power list recognizing the influential leaders navigating the borough through a crisis. We’re also doing something new – honoring a group of heroes who met the challenge in different ways. 

Nancy Arias

Chief Nursing Officer, Correctional Health Services

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Nancy Arias

Providing health care in jail is challenging under the best of circumstances – but how do you manage the well-being of some 4,000 inmates during a pandemic? According to the New York City Board of Correction, as many as 381 inmates – 10% of the overall population – tested positive for COVID-19 at the peak of the pandemic in April.

Containing the spread of the coronavirus among inmates required both careful planning and swift action, says Nancy Arias, who oversees about 450 Correctional Health Services nurses and other staff working in facilities on Rikers Island, in Manhattan and in the Bronx. 

Beginning in March, her staff worked with the Department of Correction to isolate, test and treat symptomatic patients. They moved asymptomatic COVID-positive patients into a separate facility and changed sleeping arrangements for all patients.

With her staff hit hard by the pandemic as well – 196 of them tested positive for COVID-19 between March and early June – Arias says she has been inspired by the selflessness and dedication of her colleagues, including one who continued to come to work by 5 a.m. every day despite losing her own mother this spring.

“People will never stop to amaze you,” Arias says. “Empathy and compassion helped the nursing staff get through this crisis.” 

A former pediatric nurse who was director of nursing for the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene before stepping into her current role in 2016, Arias says one of the most difficult aspects of providing health care in a correctional setting is dealing with the public’s often negative perception of the work.

“We know that we work hard and we (provide) optimal care,” she says, “but the thought of the community can sometimes be otherwise.”

Growing up in Bushwick, Brooklyn, during the 1970s and ’80s, Arias saw firsthand the devastating effects of HIV and AIDS on her low-income community. This experience inspired her to become a nurse.

“I wanted to care for people,” she says, “to be able to care for persons who were underserved in the community.”

Charles Boyce

President, Boyce Technologies

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Charles Boyce had just answered a call from a reporter and was walking through the din of noise in his Long Island City design and manufacturing plant when he stopped to observe a meaningful milestone.

“In about 30 seconds they’ll hit 3,000,” he says. 

That’s 3,000 ventilator bases for the Spiro-Wave, a new ventilator model Boyce and his team began designing and manufacturing in March, at the request of the New York City Economic Development Corporation. With some of the city’s hospitals nearing capacity and health care officials concerned that they could soon run out of ventilators, Boyce teamed up with Brooklyn-based companies New Lab and 10XBeta, and started working on an automated resuscitator – also called a “bridge ventilator” – that has fewer features than a traditional $30,000 ventilator, but can also be made more quickly and for a fraction of the cost. 

“We do what’s called ‘fail fast,’” Boyce says. “We started producing. We started failing, we started retrofitting and as we're retrofitting continued to manufacture the products.”

Boyce – who spent the past 15 years making MTA technology such as the Help Point kiosks in subway stations – didn’t even know what a ventilator was before February, he says. But as he read about the fast-moving coronavirus pandemic, he knew that his company had both the infrastructure and the expertise to make a difference in a time of crisis. 

The Spiro-Wave ventilator received FDA approval in April. Boyce says many of the ventilators have already been shipped to local hospitals and are currently undergoing IRB (International Review Board) testing. He plans to send the remaining devices to other facilities throughout the U.S. and internationally. 

With the ventilator project nearing completion, Boyce has already started working on his next challenge: building a machine that can produce tens of thousands of cloth masks per day. It’s the beginning of a much bigger PPE (personal protective equipment) manufacturing project he hopes to start in the state. 

“Part of our challenge will forever be to look for more innovative ways to become self-sufficient for New York,” Boyce says. 

Derrick DeFlorimonte

Combat Medic and EMT, Army National Guard

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Derrick DeFlorimonte

On March 14, Derrick DeFlorimonte was attending the funeral of his grandmother, who succumbed to COVID-19, when he received a call from his Army National Guard supervisor. Could he travel to Camp Smith in Cortlandt to help run a coronavirus testing site?

“My job is to help people,” says DeFlorimonte, who remembers thinking at the time, “The best I could do right now is go upstate...and see if I can just help out as much as I can.” He left the same day.

DeFlorimonte, who began serving in the U.S. Army Reserves in 2008 and has been a combat medic with the Army National Guard since 2015, spent the next few days administering nasal swab tests at Camp Smith. Next, he went directly to a second assignment at one of the New York City area’s largest testing sites on Long Island’s Jones Beach, where he and fellow medics were charged with helping build capacity during a critical time. 

“A lot of people wanted the test and some people needed the test, but they weren’t able to get access to the test,” DeFlorimonte says. He spoke to his superiors, urging them to “make this happen” – and his efforts paid off. DeFlorimonte estimates that from mid-March through the end of April, medics at Jones Beach tested about 2,500 people from southeast Queens. 

Now a candidate for the New York State Assembly to fill the vacant seat in District 31 – which includes the Rosedale, Queens neighborhood where he grew up and where he now lives with his wife and young son – DeFlorimonte entered the race because, he says, constituents need a representative “who is actually out here in the community.” (He is currently in fifth place in the Democratic primary.)

It’s a community DeFlorimonte has been involved in since elementary school, when he helped his mother and father, who were both pastors, run a food pantry out of their home.

“That instilled in me the service aspect of my life,” he says of the experience.

Mufazzal Hossain

Vice President of Diversity & Outreach, Queens County Young Democrats

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Mufazzal Hossain strikes up a lot of conversations with strangers as he goes about his day-to-day activities – riding in an Uber, checking out at the grocery store, and at the barbershop. He wants to understand what issues are on people’s minds, and he likes answering questions.

“They do ask about the economy a lot – they try to understand about Bernie Sanders,” says Hossain, a District Leader candidate in Assembly District 38 who supported Elizabeth Warren. “Some people ask, ‘Why is it that you youngsters try to support socialism?’”

Hossain, whose day job is as an estimator for Tully Construction, says he understands that many voters lack information, which can lead to fear and uncertainty, so he tries to communicate as much as possible about the political issues that directly affect people’s lives. For example, over the past two years, he has helped organize town halls where elected officials can answer constituents’ questions.

During the New York City lockdown, these forums – which dealt with issues including rent and the stimulus package passed this spring, and featured elected officials including Assemblymember David Weprin and Congressman Gregory Meeks – were held online.

“It gave people more of an understanding in regard to what’s going on in the federal government, how the Democrats are fighting for the people of all of America,” says Hossain, referring to a recent forum discussing the effects of COVID-19 on Black and brown communities. “It rather gives them some sort of hope.”

Hossain, whose family is from Bangladesh, has been doing what he can to ease the burden of the pandemic on Muslim communities in Queens. This spring, he and his siblings, joined by two staff members from Assemblyman Weprin’s office, launched a fundraiser to help feed families in the borough during Ramadan. In April, they raised enough money to buy and distribute more than 200 packages filled with lentils, rice, dates, chickpeas and other food items typically eaten as an evening meal when breaking a Ramadan fast. 

“Sometimes,” Hossain says, “I literally just donated from my own pocket.”

Thomas Grech

President and Chief Executive Officer, Queens Chamber of Commerce

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Around the third week of March, as most New Yorkers hunkered down in their homes for what would become a weeks-long lockdown, staff members at the Queens Chamber of Commerce got to work. Within a week, they had contacted each of the chamber’s 1,150 members.

“I asked my team to see what the folks needed...see what their thoughts were about help we could offer them,” says Thomas Grech, president and CEO of the organization. “Resources within the first week – and information – was key, and it was not readily available.”

To disseminate the information quickly, Grech and his staff updated the chamber’s website so that businesses could learn about resources at the local, state and federal levels. “That became kind of a clearinghouse for everybody,” he says. When a number of restaurants decided to stay open and offer takeout, the chamber set up QueensBest.org, a website listing all of the borough’s restaurants (both members and non-members) that were operating during the lockdown and what services they offered. 

Next, the chamber hosted virtual business roundtables where members could discuss concerns about issues such as delays in receiving PPP funding, Grech said. Lieutenant Gov. Kathy Hochul attended the first virtual roundtable, while the second event brought together nearly the entire Queens congressional delegation.

To continue an annual tradition, in early May, Grech and his staff organized another virtual event: Queens Day in Albany. The fundraiser and virtual happy hour, which brought together over 150 of the chamber’s members and all of the borough’s elected officials, replaced what in previous years had been a popular gathering for the elected officials, featuring food from about 50 Queens restaurants delivered to Albany by Grech’s staff. In past years, Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz would put in a request for food from Mama’s Empanadas, and Assemblyman Michael Miller would order from Zum Stammtisch. 

This year, the Queens Day in Albany fundraiser brought in about $2,500, which went to the organization Queens Together.

“Queens Together is working on getting folks together to support restaurants that are struggling, and then feeding first responders,” Grech says. 

Daniel Puerto 

Housing Coordinator, SAGE

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Huáscar Robles Carrasquillo

Before COVID-19 arrived in New York City, many of Daniel Puerto’s clients at SAGE were preparing for their first move in decades. Tired of living in unsafe conditions and of pleading with landlords for repairs that were never made, they looked forward to the brand-new apartment units at Stonewall House in Fort Greene, a mixed-use complex designed to be occupied in part by older LGBTQ adults. Suddenly, they faced a heartbreaking choice. 

“They’re balancing their livelihoods, their well-being as well as their dream,” says Puerto, who has been working for the past three years at the New York City branch of the nation’s largest organization supporting older LGBTQ adults. For many of these residents, he said, the decision was, “Should I risk my life and put my life in danger to move?” 

For the clients who went forward with planned moves throughout the lockdown, Puerto was there every step of the way, assisting with paperwork, dealing with movers, and helping manage the stress of moving during a pandemic. 

When Puerto is not working for SAGE, he continues to support the LGBTQ community through various projects, such as the Mirror Beauty Cooperative – a Jackson Heights beauty salon that focuses on providing jobs and services to the LGBTQ and immigrant communities. Although the co-op was put on hold as the pandemic intensified, Puerto has been working to ensure its members have the resources they need during the crisis. 

Food insecurity has become a major challenge for the LGBTQ community during the pandemic, he says, adding that LGBTQ people may not feel comfortable reaching out to some charitable organizations.

“Going to a food pantry, to Catholic Charities or to Salvation Army, is one of the scariest experiences as an LGBT person,” Puerto says, “because you know that there’s so much stigma.”

To help people in need, Puerto, along with several bar owners and other community members, co-founded the Love Wins Food Pantry in Jackson Heights earlier this year. They marked Pride month by fundraising, recruiting volunteers and delivering more than 400 food baskets and meals.

“Celebrate pride by helping each other,” Puerto says. 

Cidric Trinidad

Registered Nurse, Visiting Nurse Service of New York

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Whenever Cidric Trinidad notices a piano in the home of one of his patients, he offers to play a song for them – usually the theme song from the 1980 film “Somewhere In Time” – before wrapping up the visit. 

“This is what I love about home care ... I feel like I’m visiting a family member,” Trinidad says. “I know my parents miss me playing piano for them.”

Trinidad – who divides his workweek between shifts at the NYU Langone Orthopedic Hospital and home care visits as a nurse with the Visiting Nurse Service of New York – grew up in the Philippines, where his parents still live. That’s where he learned to play the piano when he was 6 years old – and where he fell in love with the nursing profession. “This is my calling,” he says. “I know I can help.”

Despite the daily tragedies experienced in his profession, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic, Trinidad says he focuses on the positive impact his work has on patients. And he tries to lift the mood of those around him, baking cupcakes for friends and coworkers, and lasagna for his fiancé, Gavin.

Trinidad’s job as a home care nurse takes him into some of the neighborhoods that were hit hardest by COVID-19, such as East Elmhurst, Queens, where he recently cared for an 87-year-old man whose wife had died of COVID-19 – and who lives with nine other relatives. A frontline worker in a profession that carries one of the highest risks of catching COVID-19, Trinidad says he feels confident that his personal protective equipment – a gown, an N95 mask with a surgical mask on top, an eye shield, gloves, and disposable booties – protects him as he cares for patients. To stay healthy and relieve stress, he runs loops in his neighborhood in Forest Hills, Queens – training for the (virtual) Boston Marathon in September. He chooses his route carefully to avoid crowded areas. 

“I can run in Central Park,” he says. “However, I want to protect myself.”

Susan Zheng

Residential Manager, Individual Residential Alternative (IRA) Program, Chinese-American Planning Council

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Susan Zheng

When COVID-19 shut New York City down earlier this year, Susan Zheng suddenly became the sole breadwinner in her family after her parents, brother and sister – who live with her and work in the restaurant industry and the nail salon industry – all lost their jobs. But Zheng, the manager of a group home for women with developmental disabilities, is used to juggling a lot of responsibilities. 

Back in March, when many of Zheng’s 18 staff members at the Chinese-American Planning Council’s Individual Residential Alternative Program were growing increasingly concerned about COVID-19 after talking with friends in China, Zheng kept everyone calm by sharing tips for working safely during the pandemic. But there was a more challenging task ahead: explaining to the six group home residents – some of whom have autism and other developmental disabilities – that they had to change their routine.

“They miss their classmates…they all go out to this day camp program,” Zheng explains. “And suddenly, because of this, all of the activities stopped. They had to stay at home, so they don’t understand that.”

Although staff at the group home are tasked with providing around-the-clock care and activities for the six residents, who range in age from their 30s to their 60s, they cannot legally keep a resident on the premises against their will, Zheng says. At the same time, she knew she was responsible for the health and well-being of individuals who are statistically more susceptible to COVID-19: According to an analysis by NPR, people with developmental disabilities are 2.5 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than the general population. 

“This is a very difficult timeframe for them,” Zheng says, but she came up with creative strategies and suggested new activities to help the residents adjust. Eventually, they adapted to life under lockdown and the “new normal” at the group home: board games, card games, and a video exercise class every Wednesday. 

“I don’t think they understand it – but they can accept it,” Zheng says.

Franck Joseph 

Deputy Commissioner for Community Relations, NYC Commission on Human Rights

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Franck Joseph

Reports of anti-Asian discrimination and harassment started reaching the New York City Commission on Human Rights as early as February, including details of individuals being targeted with racist comments on the subway and of dramatically reduced business at Chinese restaurants. 

“We started to see the way that it was impacting business,” says Franck Joseph, who has served as Deputy Commissioner for Community Relations since October. In recent months, he has been working on outreach and education related to COVID-19. To combat coronavirus-related discrimination – which also includes discrimination against tenants and hotel guests who were thought to have COVID-19 – Joseph and his team started a series of forums bringing stakeholders together to share ideas and information. 

“We wanted to make sure that we can create this feedback loop,” Joseph says, “so that we have a pulse on the ground.”

The forums, created in partnership with community-based organizations such as the Chinese-American Planning Council, elected officials including Council Member Margaret Chen, the Mayor’s Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes, and other business and community groups, began as live events but quickly transitioned to the virtual realm. They covered issues such as the difference between a bias incident and a hate crime.

One of the outcomes of the forums – which reached more than 2,000 people – was an increase in reported incidents, as more and more community members started to recognize discrimination and alert officials, Joseph says. Between February and the end of May, there were 145 reported incidents of anti-Asian discrimination – there were just 12 such incidents during the same period last year. 

“This past couple of months have just reinforced the need to have human rights advocacy and to have an agency that’s doing this work,” Joseph says. “And really making sure that we’re able to connect to communities across the city.”

For Joseph, this also means connecting to older residents of the borough as part of the Southeast Queens Wellness Ambassador Initiative, where he oversees a team of volunteers who regularly call older residents to check on their health and see if they need anything. 

“That’s been really fulfilling,” he enthuses. 

Erica Harris

COVID-19 Testing Program Leader, Elmhurst Hospital

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Erica Harris

Erica Harris loves to share her musical talent with friends and colleagues at Elmhurst Hospital – last year, she sang a song by Alicia Keys at the hospital’s National Nurses Week celebration – but until large group gatherings are safe again, she’s singing on her own. Lately, Harris, a longtime nurse, is drawn to songs about motivation and courage, she says, because they help her manage the stress of working during a pandemic.

“When put to the test, you really are stronger than you know,” says Harris while reflecting on the past few months.

Elmhurst Hospital made headlines in March for being what some called a “ground zero” for COVID-19, due to the staggering number of sick patients it was treating on a daily basis. Around the same time, the hospital opened the first community-based outdoor testing unit for COVID-19 to meet the growing demand for testing. 

Harris, who has worked at the hospital for the past 20 years, most recently as a nursing supervisor in the ambulatory care clinic, volunteered for the job alongside some of her colleagues. Driven by urgent demand, the testing unit came together in just a few days. 

“Before we finished fully constructing it...we had a few people lined up,” Harris remembers. “Those first couple of days, it was really a whirlwind.” 

As New York City’s coronavirus cases began to decline, the mood at the hospital began to lighten as well, Harris says, adding that now she can see people smiling – even though they’re still wearing masks. Although the city is opening up, Harris believes some pandemic-driven changes – more people using telemedicine, for instance – could remain in place for a while, especially for people who are immunocompromised. 

With the worst of the crisis behind them, Harris and her colleagues are now preparing for the second wave of the pandemic as they continue to manage patient needs.

“That’s definitely something that’s on everyone’s mind,” she says, adding that at least now everyone knows what to expect. “We let our patients know that we are here and we are open.”

Francisco Moya

New York City Council Member

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Michael Nigro

The COVID-19 crisis that unfolded at Elmhurst Hospital earlier this year hit home for Francisco Moya, who represents the surrounding neighborhood as a member of the New York City Council. Moya, who was born at the hospital and worked there years ago in business development and external affairs, recalls the “eerie feeling” he would get seeing the lines of people waiting in the rain outside the hospital, not far from the refrigerated trucks with the bodies of those who fell victim to the pandemic.

What hit Moya the hardest was hearing from the family of a 12-year-old boy who had lost his mother to COVID-19 and would soon lose his father as well. The boy’s family – immigrants from Ecuador – did not have money for the burial and were not eligible to apply for the $900 in assistance provided by the city’s Human Resources Administration due to their undocumented status.

“When that happens, it’s like, how can you not get emotional?” recalls Moya, whose family is also from Ecuador. (He became the nation’s first Ecuadorian-American elected to public office in 2010, as a member of the State Assembly.) “I reached out to people I knew and we were able to help.”

This experience inspired Moya to help others who find themselves in the same situation, spearheading an effort to establish an emergency burial fund with help from Corey Johnson and the New York City Mayor’s Office. Announced in May, the fund is available to low-income and undocumented New Yorkers, and provides up to $1,700 in funeral expenses as well as reimbursements of up to $3,400 in funeral costs. 

Moya says the coronavirus pandemic “has shown the inequities – housing, racial, socioeconomic inequities – that exist in the city of New York,” and has hit immigrant communities particularly hard. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 16.2% of Latino workers are able to telecommute.

“These are the individuals that are delivering our food while we’re here at home,” Moya says. “They’re the ones manning the cash registers and stocking the aisles at our local supermarket.”

Kelly Craig and Patrick Thompson

Co-founders, LIC Relief

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Kelly Craig (left) and Patrick Thompson (right)
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Kelly Craig (left) and Patrick Thompson (right)
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On March 13, more than a week before New York state hit “PAUSE,” Long Island City neighbors Kelly Craig and Patrick Thompson realized that a serious crisis was imminent and decided to do something to help. 

Craig and Thompson live in apartments across the hall from one another. Thompson’s daughter has babysat Craig’s son since he was born. Thompson, a Christian pastor, and Craig, who is Jewish, also run into each other often during their work with multiple community groups in the neighborhood. “It started with two friends, two neighbors having a conversation,” says Thompson, who leads New City Church in Long Island City. “Within days, we had an organization up and running. It was kind of crazy.”

Their organization, LIC Relief, paid a slate of neighborhood restaurants for meals that were then made available for free for pick-up or were delivered to nearby New York City Housing Authority developments through partnerships and via volunteers. In the first two weeks, the organization was already distributing some 300 meals per day, Thompson says. They also stocked a food pantry. By mid-June, LIC Relief had raised almost $150,000and has now launched a free career coaching program and a new fundraising effort for schools. 

Craig says at the height of the outbreak, her days began at 4 a.m. and ended at 11 p.m. In addition to LIC Relief, she was managing her own clients and home-schooling her 6-year-old son as a single mother. “When we would be unpacking donations of tomato sauce, I would be like, ‘All right, we have 20 sauces. Now we have to give six sauces to this person coming in. How many sauces do we have left?’” she recalls. It wasn’t typical homeschooling, but she hopes there are lessons that will stick. “What I hope that I’m teaching my son at the end of this – because he’s old enough to remember this now – is that when something happens, if you have a way to help people, you help people.”

Dr. Alan Roth

Chairman of the Department of Family Medicine, Ambulatory Care and Community Medicine, and Chief of the Department of Pain and Palliative Care Medicine, Jamaica Hospital Medical Center

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Jamaica Hospital Medical Center

For three straight months, Dr. Alan Roth managed a crowded unit of COVID-19 patients at Jamaica Hospital Medical Center as the pandemic reached its apex in New York, leaving his house long before sunrise and returning home late at night for a few hours of sleep. He also made sure the hospital retained a site for primary care throughout the crisis to manage other illnesses and needs. The veteran physician, who completed his internship at Coney Island Hospital during the AIDS epidemic, says people who were sick should have been told to seek medical care before their situations became life-threatening. “I was one of those believers that unless you put a stethoscope on someone’s lung and check their vital signs, including pulse ox (oxidation levels), that there is no way in the world you could tell a patient who is likely (COVID-positive) to stay home and do nothing,” he says. 

Reflecting on the height of the pandemic, he brings up many of the lessons from the crisis for health care providers, administrators, and political leaders at every level. The decision not to allow visitors in hospitals, for example, had devastating consequences for vulnerable people, he says. 

The pandemic required physicians to make immense sacrifices. Roth didn’t see his grandson in person for months. He contracted the coronavirus himself the first week in March, and he says most of the doctors he worked with got sick as well. One Jamaica Hospital physician, Dr. Sudheer Chauhan, died from COVID-19 in May. “He was one of the role models for everyone here,” Roth says. “It was a great loss.” Many of the doctors treating COVID-19 patients were not typically intensive care physicians, but were transferred and had to quickly adjust. “It was just a group of us that said, ‘We’ve got to do it,’ because, you know, Jamaica Hospital didn’t get the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines like other people did,” he explains. “We all learned on the fly. That is unlike anything we ever did before.” 

Kathryn Haslanger

CEO, JASA

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Kathryn Haslanger

As she talks about her organization’s response to the pandemic in Queens, Kathryn Haslanger constantly emphasizes that it is her staff, not she, who are the heroes. JASA offers more than 40,000 older New Yorkers a variety of services, from meal delivery to legal support to housing. The staff of the organization includes delivery drivers, social workers, nurses, attorneys, nutritionists and building managers, among others.

In Far Rockaway, JASA operates three senior housing campuses, including one with 1,200 units. Those buildings have to be thoroughly sanitized to protect vulnerable residents. “We’ve been working hard to make sure that those buildings are clean and safe and are good homes for people who are going through a very uncertain and challenging time,” Haslanger says. The organization has also upped its food delivery programs to prevent seniors from having to buy food in stores, where they may be exposed to the coronavirus. 

For elderly residents, isolation and loneliness have been added to the threat of COVID-19. Many lack the technological skills that allowed younger people to keep in touch with friends and family, and gatherings at senior centers have been suspended. Accordingly, JASA coordinators have begun making frequent calls to check on clients and residents to help them get resources they need – like meals and medicine – delivered. The calls also offer a moment of human connection and a mental health check-in.

“We are keenly aware that a lot of the people we are working with and we’re supporting are living on the wrong side of the digital divide. They don’t have a device or they don’t have connectivity,” Haslanger says. Through phone contacts, service coordinators have helped elders connect with their faith leaders, get a ride home from the hospital and talk to their doctors.

“There are a lot of people who were counting on us in different ways, and a lot of people who were very much at risk, particularly vulnerable to this virus, because of their age, because of their underlying chronic conditions,” Haslanger says. “So we have been really busy.”

Kristen Rodriguez and Adam Kern

Nursing Students, Queensborough Community College

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In March, as the coronavirus began its devastating sweep through New York nursing homes, with workers overwhelmed and death rates soaring, nursing students at Queensborough Community College received an email with an urgent request from two nursing homes: Would anyone be able to volunteer to help care for elderly residents? 

Unsure what they would be facing, Adam Kern and Kristen Rodriguez both signed up to volunteer at the Parker Jewish Institute in New Hyde Park-Lake Success. “At first, we were very hesitant – we didn’t really know much about the whole COVID outbreak,” Rodriguez said. “Once you started learning more, it was almost even scarier.” 

The coronavirus had already begun to take its toll at the Parker Jewish Institute when the students started working there. To protect themselves, they wear multiple layers of personal protective equipment, and they leave their work clothes and shoes outside their apartments.

Their nursing classes, including clinicals, had moved online. While they were not yet qualified to provide nursing-level care, they were kept busy by providing support to the staff, and their positions ultimately became paid. Kern called the experience “nursing boot camp.”

Both students felt a strong obligation to help those in need. Kern, a Long Island native, was a student at the University of Colorado on 9/11. He said the feeling of inability to help after that crisis was something he will never forget. “I’ve sort of been, in the back of my head, carrying that with me for a long time, and now I’m studying nursing. We were in a respiratory unit before they sort of disbanded all classes. So I’m learning exactly that thing,” he said. Rodriguez said her memories of her two grandmothers’ experiences living in a nursing home motivated her to get to work. She was able to be there for them when they died, and wanted to help comfort others. “I just wanted to be there for whoever I can,” she said.

Dr. Syed Iqbal

Pulmonary and Critical Care Physician, Long Island Jewish Forest-Hills Hospital

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Asked about what his daily life was like at the height of the coronavirus crisis, Dr. Syed Iqbal is somewhat at a loss for words. “Oh, wow,” he says. Carefully avoiding hyperbole, he begins to describe the overwhelming experience. The ICU at Long Island Jewish Forest Hills Hospital, which usually has a census of 14 patients, was filled with closer to 55 people who were critically ill. Staff members were running to keep people on ventilators monitored, sedated and as comfortable as possible. “It was one after another after another,” he says of the onslaught of cases. He saw first-hand that the disease affected young and old people. “We had patients that were like 30-year-olds, in their 40s, with no real medical problems, getting really, really sick.”

Born in Pakistan, Iqbal grew up in Canarsie, Brooklyn. He completed college and all of his medical training in New York, choosing to specialize in pulmonary and critical care because of how complex and challenging the specialty is. He says he loves Queens for its vibrant diversity.“For a good chunk of my life, I have been part of this city, and it’s good to be able to give back,” the young doctor says. His current borough had the second-highest hospitalization rate in the city, with more than 100 people dying per day for much of April. Iqbal says that this crisis has been one that tested the social side of medicine, with many doctors feeling the emotional effects of caring for so many critically ill patients.He praised the resilience of fellow medical staff and says he looked to patients for strength and motivation.

“The survivors are really the ones who give us hope,” he said.

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