What We Owe the COVID Fallen: Acting like Their Lives Mattered to Protect Our Own

PATH employee Robert Elijah

One of the worst consequences of the distraction surrounding how Donald Trump is handling his loss is that it has relegated the daily loss of essential workers to COVID to a kind of background music we hear in the supermarket.

No one knows for sure how many essential workers have perished from the deadly virus. No one knows what percentage of New Jersey’s 15,000 COVID deaths, or of the country’s close to 300,000 virus deaths are attributable to preventable occupational exposures essential workers sustained helping others.

Here in New Jersey, Passaic Firefighter/EMT Israel Tolentino, 31 who died on March 31, is believed to be the first uniformed first responder to perish in our state. Just a few days later, Paterson Police Officer Frank Scorpo, 34, also died from the deadly virus.

Tolentino left behind his wife and two small children as did Scorpo.

 

HIDDEN FIGURES?

But the uniformed first responders are just a fraction of our COVID-19 honor roll that surely has to include transit workers like Robert Elijah, 61, of Cliffwood, a power rail mechanic for the Port Authority Trans Hudson commuter rail line who was a member of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 864.

Elijah died on April 23 and was survived by his wife, three children and 12 grandchildren.

Across the country, the carnage wrought by the pandemic in the health care workforce has resulted in hundreds upon hundreds of fatalities like 56-year-old emergency room nurse Pamela Orlando, who worked at Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, New Jersey who  spent the last weeks of her life using video to document her losing battle with COVID.

A joint investigation by the Guardian newspaper and Kaiser Health News has estimated that over 1,300 healthcare professionals have lost their lives to the deadly virus and that in some cases healthcare workers might make up 20 percent of the cases depending on the state.

 

A GREAT SQUANDERING

With the complete lack of a unified federal strategy what’s developed is a badly fractured state by state, even city by city response. As a consequence of this federal abdication, there’s been a great squandering of the lives and of the health of the essential workforce and their families, depending on the level of denial by their state and local officials.

These workers, who could easily number in the tens of thousands, were in essence deemed expendable by President Trump who recklessly ignored the guidance of his own CDC. He downplayed the seriousness of the virus, pressing ahead in full campaign mode to open up the economy at any cost.

The Trump/Pence team’s decision to double down with a full campaign schedule not only put an untold number of local first responders, health care professionals and other essential workers at risk it, it sidelined 300 Secret Service agents and uniformed officers.

“Trump has frowned on mask wearing at the White House, and some Secret Service personnel have privately complained to colleagues that they were instructed by presidential detail agents not to wear masks in his presence,” the Washington Post reported.

 

NEVER FORGETTING, AGAIN

The Trump/Pence wanton disregard for the virus’s life altering and deadly consequences for those sworn to protect them extended to the entirety of the nation’s essential workforce on a scale that must be fully investigated by a 9/11 Commission type probe.

It can’t be let stand for the ages without a thorough investigation that will also act as an essential after-action report on what history may judge as the most spectacular failure of a modern government to protect its own people and its own civil servants.

Nine months into this once in a century public health crisis, the Occupational Safety and Hazards Administration has been totally missing in action and has failed to issue enforceable workplace health standards specific to COVID-19, which has already killed thousands upon thousands of essential workers.

New Jersey residents should take some pride in the fact that our state appears to be leading the nation in filling that massive gap in workplace protections for essential workers with a 13-page executive order signed by Gov. Phil Murphy on Nov. 5.

 

THE HOW AS IMPORTANT AS THE WHAT

The directive, which covers both public and private sector employers, was the result of extensive consultations with the CWA and SEIU, as well as grass roots community groups like Make the Road New Jersey, which advocates for immigrant households who are the backbone of the essential workforce.

Under Murphy’s order employers have an obligation to make sure the workers that have to work outside their home are guaranteed the basics like masks and hand sanitizer they need to keep themselves and their families safe.

The workplace safety mandate also requires employers routinely clean and disinfect all ‘high touch areas’ as well as require customers to follow basic public health requirements like wearing a mask.

In addition, “prior to each shift” employers are required to conduct daily health checks of employees and to “immediately separate and send home employees who appear to have symptoms” of the highly contagious deadly virus.

The measure, believed to be the first of its kind, builds on the state’s Public Employees Occupational Safety and Health regulations which established a process for the lodging and investigation of health and safety complaints from public workers as well as employer and employee training.

 

SCALING UP PREVENTION

“The really impressive part of this is that it applies to everyone,” said Hetty Rosenstein, CWA’s New Jersey State Director. “It provides a set of standards and some enforcement for workers who are not represented [by a union] and that is pretty good.”

New Jersey has also taken the lead nationally in extending a workplace presumption to essential workers when it comes to their being able to access the Workers Compensation system, in the event they are disabled by the virus.

Yet, Rosenstein, who leads a union which represents tens of thousands of state, county and municipal workers, notes that even within New Jersey’s public sector there is a wide divergence between how seriously managers take COVID workplace protections often depending on their political and ideological orientation.

The CWA has lost dozens of members to the virus, according to Rosenstein. “We lost a good number in the beginning and I am worried about now especially for our workers” that regularly interface with the public through their jobs and New Jersey’s Department of Children and Families.

“Nobody knew or really understood how bad this was initially and they did not have testing—they didn’t have PPE—they did not have supplies,” Rosenstein recalled. “So, we were asking for masks for our workers when healthcare workers in hospitals didn’t have them and we were told they could not even bring their own because they said then people would start saying ‘hey, wait a minute, I need a mask too.’”

 

SCARCITY KILLS

Consider the tragic fate of Priscilla Carrow, 65, a coordinating manager who worked for New York City’s Elmhurst Hospital, a municipal facility in Queens, hit hard by the virus. She was a shop steward with CWA Local 1180, and responsible for handing out masks to frontline health care workers but was not permitted to wear one herself and died from the virus in April.

“Part of her job was to distribute PPE [masks] to make sure everyone working with the public—with patients has face masks, everyone but herself because there wasn’t enough to go around,” testified Gloria Middleton, president of CWA Local 1180, at a recent hearing. “If the city had stricter guidelines on health and safety protocols earlier this year Priscilla Carrow and hundreds like her might still be with us today.”

What is not widely reported is the swath of death and destruction wrought by the virus, not just through the essential workforce itself, but through their immediate and extended families as well as increasing medical evidence of lingering and disabling symptoms.

Paul DiGiacomo, president of the NYPD’s Detective Endowment Association, says his union has had to deal first-hand with the repercussions of the health implications for the family of a detective who was exposed to COVID and died.

 

ABOVE AND BEYOND

“One of our detectives…had a two-year-old and a one- month-old child and when he came home from work, unfortunately he gave this virus to his wife and passed on to the children as well and she had no support system, she was alone with young children and we had to help her get through that situation,” Mr. DiGiacomo said during a phone interview.

He continued. “We still don’t know the long terms effects of this—what’s going to happen moving forward? How is it going to affect our society and policing moving forward?”

For DiGiacomo the COVID-19 situation for first responders is completely analogous to what happened to them, as well as residents of lower Manhattan, when they were told by the U.S. EPA that the air was “safe to breathe” despite government testing that indicated otherwise and was suppressed just to facilitate the timely opening of Wall Street.

The historical corollary is not lost on some members of Congress like Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., chair of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight, who has been tracking the impact of the virus on the federal workforce.

“I led my colleagues in demanding answers about how the Trump White House’s negligence has likely put federal employees’ health in needless danger,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell, in a statement. “Any workers sickened by the government’s incompetence, especially our front line first responders, should be adequately compensated, and families who lost loved ones should receive survivor benefits.”

Mr. Pascrell continued. “When this government is blessedly ejected on January 20, 2021, there must be an accounting of how many lives were lost in the rush to reopen. And I’m sure no supporter of Donald Trump clapped for these needless deaths when attending his rallies. But look at the consequences of his actions.”

Back in the spring a bi-partisan effort led by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform resulted in drafting a bill which would create a 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund type program for the essential workforce and their families ravaged by COVID-19.

“Now, we need to pass my Pandemic Heroes Compensation Act to ensure that all essential workers and their families can get compensation if they or their loved ones become sick because they were called in to work,” Maloney wrote in a statement. “Essential workers are keeping this country going, and they need to know that we will be there for them if they get sick.”

In both red and blue states in our town squares we have placed plaques and erected statues to honor our fallen soldiers even if their lives lost were in an unpopular war.

Historians rank armed conflicts by the body count, the dead and the wounded. It’s an exercise that honors the dead but also holds the living accountable for their sacrifice.

Can we afford to do any less for an essential workforce killed or disabled by a pandemic for which our nation was so ill-prepared and which our government at its highest levels denied was a problem even as the body count mounting daily proved otherwise?

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  • Bruce Todd

    This is another “Lets rewrite history” article that throws out the window the actual chain of events from shutting down overseas travel, to setting up emergency hospitals and guidance measures in coordination with the governors of states, to getting from other countries the needed PPE and getting U.S. manufacturers to start production of that and essential ventilators and other equipment, to an unprecedented research, testing and approval of needed therapeutic medications and now a soon to be released series of vaccinations. It was certain Governors who actually committed murder by injecting sick patients into senior citizen and rehab facilities under whose authorization no one seems to want to take credit for. So lets be a little bit “Truthful” in your “Reporting”.

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