Unions Want Quick Access to Vaccine For 9/11 Health-Program Members

Say Past Illnesses Weakened Immune Systems

By BOB HENNELLY Jan 15, 2021

The Chief Leader

Advocates for participants in the 9/11 WTC Health Program hope to convince Governor Cuomo to expedite access to the coronavirus vaccine for the first-responders and civilian survivors who are enrolled in the program and suffer from multiple health conditions that make them far more susceptible.

“We’ve heard from the experts at the last meeting of the World Trade Center Medical Advisory and Steering Committee the numbers they are seeing during the pandemic prove that WTC first responders and survivors are at a significantly higher risk for COVID complications,” said retired  Paramedic Gary Smiley, who is District Council 37’s Local 2507 WTC ombudsman. “All of the members of our union that we lost to COVID were also WTC responders with significant WTC illnesses”

Follow Cuomo’s Lead?

He continued, “The Governor’s been a true champion for the WTC community, and if he takes action, we hope the governors in other states, where thousands of 9/11 WTC responders and survivors currently live, will take note.”

Lila Nordstrom, who on 9/11 was a student at lower Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School, which reopened not long after the terrorist attack, 15 years ago founded StuyHealth, a nonprofit committed to providing public-health outreach to the thousands of former students who were often unaware of the long-term health impact they might face from their exposure 20 years ago.

“I’d definitely support that [expedited access to the COVID vaccine], especially because many survivors are in states where the process is going to be unreliable and complicated,” she said during a phone interview. “I’ve heard the same from responders. Also, many of us tend to have very long, complicated recoveries even from common colds, though I don’t have data on specifics because…nobody does. It’s been hard to go see doctors during this time.”

Michael Barasch, a leading 9/11 compensation attorney, said that he had already lost 120 of his WTC clients “and in all cases they had underlying respiratory issues and/or cancer, which compromised their immune system.”

WTC Survivor, Virus Victim 

Last month Local 2507 member Evelyn Ford, a 27-year veteran Emergency Medical Service Dispatcher who was 58, became the fifth EMS employee to die from the disease. She was also a participant in the WTC Health Program, as was her husband, Darnell Ford, a private-sector EMT at Jamaica Hospital who in November died of COVID-19.

“There’s no doubt these people should be getting it,” said Oren Barzilay, president of Local 2507, which represents Emergency Medical Technicians and Fire Inspectors. “Their immune systems are already compromised, and the least we can do for these heroes and survivors is honor them by giving them the vaccine.”

That sentiment was echoed by EMS Officers Local 3621 President Vincent Variale, who called them “front-line heroes.”

“I firmly believe that anyone that was a victim of the WTC attack or any member of the WTC Health Program whose illness puts them at a higher risk from COVID should be given access to the vaccine as soon as possible,” said Andy Ansbro, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association. “We are talking about thousands of retirees.”

‘They Deserve Priority’

His counterpart at the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, James Lemonda, said, “The lingering effects of 9/11 are such that we still have members who are sick and susceptible from their time of service at the WTC site. We are looking for all first-responders who are retired and responded to the WTC and were exposed to those toxins to be given priority.”

And U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a leading advocate for WTC victims in Congress, said in a statement that “responders and survivors who, because of their 9/11 injuries have medical conditions that increase the risk for severe COVID both need and deserve expedited access to the COVID-19 vaccine. 

From the start of the pandemic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that individuals who suffered from pre-existing conditions, like the cancers and respiratory diseases that are common in the WTC population, were at a much higher risk of succumbing to COVID.

The Governor and state health officials recently expanded eligibility based on CDC recommendations to include persons 65 and over as well as  younger people who are immunocompromised. But Mr. Cuomo told reporters Jan. 12 that the state was limited in whom it could actually accommodate because of the limited supply and the “drip, drip, drip from the faucet of Federal dosage availability.”

40% Younger Than 65

According to the WTC Health Program website, 32,000 of the 80,000 first-responders enrolled are under 65. Over 70 percent of the first-responders and survivors in the health program suffer from more than one certified WTC cancer or condition.

In the years since the 9/11 attack, when nearly 2,800 people were killed here, a near-equal number have died from diseases they contracted due to their exposure to World Trade Center dust.

The first-responders enrollment is close to the estimated 90,000 who were part of the rescue-and-recovery operation. Just 27,000 of the hundreds of thousands of civilians who were exposed to the WTC toxins in lower Manhattan and western Brooklyn are in the program.