Healthcare Heroes On The Frontlines

April 21, 2020

Traditionally, this time of year holds the promise of renewal. But right now, the United States is in the grips of a pandemic. America’s spring will never be the same.

We are in a moment unlike any in recent memory. It is a mass casualty event in which hundreds of thousands have become sick or died. Hundreds of thousands more are left behind, without family or loved ones. Our thin safety net is shredded, and the strength of America’s people is being tested in ways never before seen.


“We are all going through this, but everyone in healthcare deals closely with people and that can be very stressful, but we are needed now more than ever.”

— Florine Simpson, Home Health Aide, Stella Orton Agency, Staten Island, NY

Heroes_fa2.jpgIncomparable to any disaster, act of God, or domestic mass casualty in recent U.S. history - even 9/11, which forever changed the country’s national psyche - the pandemic’s scope is unmatched in terms of the body count and ever-increasing demand on infrastructure and resources.

Every single 1199er in every single region of the Union is affected. Many of us, personally and professionally.

1199ers’ roles on our nation’s front line in this public health crisis has highlighted the critical place of caregivers in our society, and amplified our societal weaknesses, the struggles of our healthcare system, and the power-based calculus of our national leaders.

Over the course of the crisis, governors and other state and local politicians pleading with an unresponsive Federal Government for resources and support has become a familiar sight.

New York State is home to the global COVID-19 epicenter, New York City, and its environs are increasingly crippled by the virus. News and social media are daily streams of scenes of beleaguered New York City, hospitals, wailing sirens, and exhausted workers caring for tens of thousands of sick patients, many of whom were victimized by systemic health disparities long before the coronavirus made its way to American shores.

Governors have become defacto national crisis leaders, regularly engaging federal officials who dismiss states’ concerns and mock their projections, recommendations and death tolls.

1199SEIU members have been vocal leaders in the fight for access to the national stockpiles of crisis and emergency supplies and the production of personal protection equipment (PPE), ventilators, N95 masks, gowns, gloves, and other supplies.

“President Trump is trying to downplay everything. Today, we got a second cooler truck for the bodies at Wyckoff. These aren’t just bodies. These are somebody’s family members who could not have their loved ones beside them in their final hours; who can’t have funerals. I don’t know how much more real this can get.”

- Gina Torres, X-Ray Technician, Wyckoff Heights Medical Center, Brooklyn, NY


To that end, 1199 has mobilized members, connecting with elected officials and expanding information and communication outlets to keep workers informed and active. The Union hosted several regional and unionwide tele town hall events that included allies Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Sen. Corey Booker (D-NJ) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), as well as 1199 National Benefit Fund Medical Director Dr. Van Dunn. Organizers, officers, and contract administrators have also implemented new ways of keeping in contact with members, including Zoom meetings, Twitter chats, and localized tele town halls.

Still, as the crisis unfolded, the Trump Administration sat back and engaged in a game of politics.

“Everything changes by the hour. I’m an ER nurse, so I’m used to constant change, but I’m not used to the kind of lack of leadership we are experiencing with this lack of supplies and constantly changing standards of care.”

— Kimberly Aspelin, RN, Charles Regional Medical Center, La Plata, MD

Heroes_fa3.jpgDonald Trump and his advisors downplayed risk, called COVID-19 a hoax, race baited, pitted states against one another, and derided and contradicted some of the nation’s (and the world’s) most experienced doctors, crisis management experts and scientists. As tens of thousands continued to fall ill and die and as outraged caregivers across the country cried out for PPE, ventilators and resources, President Trump used public appearances to air personal grievances, cast doubt on the vast need for supplies and resources, and humiliate the journalists tasked with reporting the almost incomprehensible crisis.

As of early April, there were more than 311,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States and just shy of 8,500 deaths. National and local experts predict a grave expansion of those numbers and an epidemic that will tear through even the most rural parts of the country like wildfire.

“Staten Island is very small. We are really feeling the wrath of this thing. When I was growing up, we had five hospitals. Today we have three and only one level one trauma center on the island. Every day I wake up and get on my hands and knees and pray these numbers don’t keep going up. Everyone knows someone who is affected, infected or dead.”

— Kim Fish, PCA, Staten Island University Hospital North

Heroes_fa7.jpgThe New York Times reported on April 5 that the number of cases nationally was expected to double every five days.

As the COVID-19 fire burns, hundreds of thousands of caregivers and frontline responders are at work saving lives and fighting the outbreak. As many of us watch the once-unimaginable scenes of sickness and death from afar, our caregivers are in the trenches, helping heal the very sick, and too often, beside COVID victims as they cross over to the other side, stepping in for family loved cruelly robbed by the virus of the opportunity to help ease the way and say last goodbyes.

These pages are just a glimpse of 1199ers during this crisis, doing what they do every day: Undertaking a deadly risk and walking into hospitals, nursing homes, and private homes to do the job of caring for others. In the coming months, we will have a more comprehensive story of our members, their heroism, and their part in healing our country and the world. But for now, these pages are the story of today, and they represent the incredible strength of the 1199 army, and their fight against an invisible enemy.

“The government knew about this since 2019. They should have made sure that we had enough PPE and that we were alerted to this situation. They knew a pandemic was coming and now it’s here and we don’t have what we need to handle it.”

— Carol Wills, CNA, Terence Cardinal Cooke Care Centre, New York, NY


1199 Magazine | March / April 2020