Vaccines, though hugely welcome, come too late for many

Published: Dec. 11, 2020

Ellis Henican

NYC emergency-medical crews still badly battered from earlier COVID infections

When the first wave hit, Jennifer Aguiluz was exactly where she wanted to be, right on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, handing out masks, gloves and other scarce protective gear to her fellow medical responders.

And nine months later, as another wave of the deadly virus infects her city?

“I’m sitting at home, incapacitated, wondering when I’ll ever get my life back again,” said Aguiluz, 39, a 16-year veteran of the Fire Department’s Emergency Medical Service. “I love my job. I’ve always been healthy. I’ve always worked out. I’m the one who juices and stays on other people about their nutrition. But this disease has affected every aspect of me. Physically, emotionally, mentally, financially — and spiritually just as much. Now, I’m questioning, ‘Will this be with me forever?’ I can only hope and pray that what I am doing is the right thing and I am going to get better.”

New York City’s paramedics and EMTs, like other at-risk medical personnel, will be near the front of the queue when the coronavirus vaccines finally get here, most likely starting next week. But the vaccines are coming much too late for many of these first responders. They put their lives on the line all spring, summer and fall, going into sick people’s apartments, delivering on-the-spot medical care, loading the patients into ambulances and transporting the people to local hospitals, face to face with a deadly contagion no one entirely understood.

Aguiluz lives in Long Beach on Long Island and has a 21-year-old college-student daughter. She believes she was infected by being in tight, early contact with hundreds of her colleagues while collecting and distributing N95 masks, medical gowns and other personal-protective equipment. “It was a massive undertaking,” she said. “No one was ready for this.”

What it’s meant for Aguiluz is a chain reaction of symptoms that keep changing but refuse to go away.

“Initially my symptoms were pretty mild,” she said. “I had a slight fever. I was tired. Then, I slept for three weeks straight.” The pounding headaches started, like migraines that wouldn’t go away. Then came the breathing issue that doctors called reactive airway disease, like having asthma that doesn’t respond to asthma medication. 

“My kidneys have been fine, but if my liver enzymes got any worse, I might need a liver transplant. Right after one symptom would resolve — boom! I would get hit by another one. It’s like, ‘What else is going to go wrong?’” The latest, she said, is pericardial effusion. “That’s fluid around the heart. It’s treatable. And it isn’t just me. The answer I keep getting is, ‘Oh, yeah. We’ve seen that a lot with COVID.’”

Aguiluz said she’s gotten plenty of support these past few months. “Thank God for my friends and family,” she said. “People were literally dropping things off at my doorstep.” And, crucially, she’s still getting paid, though she misses the overtime and shift differentials she had gotten used to.

But her situation is far from unique. 

Back in the spring, as the city faced a 50% increase in 911 calls, there were days that 20% of the EMS crews were out sick. Things got so intense that Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a joint venture with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to bring in 250 ambulances and 500 EMTs from out of town. Now, as the numbers are rapidly rising again, almost everywhere is suffering and outside reinforcements are unlikely.

“We’re not like firefighters, who can see the smoke and the fire, or like police officers, who can see the violent people they confront,” said Oren Barzilay, president of the Uniformed EMTs, Paramedics & Fire Inspectors FDNY, Local 2507. “We can’t see the contagious, deadly disease that is all around us. It’s blind to the naked eye. What we face is just as deadly, if not deadlier than what other first responders are facing. And we have no way of knowing when it’s there.”

And what makes this work even more dicey, he said, is that all 4,000 of his members bring this risk of contagion home.

“Now, you’re potentially getting your family sick,” Barzilay said. “We have had a few instances where our members who were sick went home, infected a family member and that family member died. Can you imagine what that feels like? It puts a huge burden, believing you just killed your loved one.”

Ellis Henican is an author based in New York City and a former newspaper columnist.