When Marcela Vasquez, a phlebotomist at Long Island Community Hospital in New York, gasped for air in a quiet room at home, she wondered: If I die, who will take care of my children?
As the fevers and body aches wracked her body, Vasquez’s 13-year-old daughter, Alyssa Barnes, feared the same.
“I really need her,” Alyssa said of her mother, 38, who tested positive for the coronavirus in late March. “Just losing her, it would change my entire life.”
It’s unclear how many front-line health care workers are also parents but, at home, their children live with the anxiety that mom or dad will get sick or that they’ll bring the virus home and die.
“I just thought that she was going to die in her room,” Alyssa said, recalling the anxiety that overwhelmed her while her mother was sick. “I was so scared she was going to die by herself.”
At least 9,000 health care workers have been infected by the coronavirus so far in the United States, and at least 27 have died, according to an April report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It’s not just doctors and nurses who have fallen victim: Nonmedical workers, including hospital security guards and housekeepers, have also been sickened and died.
Early in the pandemic, the nation’s personal protective equipment supply shortage became glaringly clear — even emergency room nurses were reusing N95 masks for days at a time. Nonmedical workers were often afforded less protective gear than their colleagues who treated patients — or none at all — according to union leaders and hospital employees.
Though her children have their father, Vasquez said, “No one takes care of you like your mother.”
Alyssa said she was always somewhat worried about her mother’s job, and news of the pandemic raised her fears a bit. Then the virus came to New York.
“I was really scared when it first came to Long Island, and I knew the hospital was going to be packed,” she said.
Vasquez, who believes she was exposed at her job, returned to work in April after her symptoms disappeared, but about a week later, a fever returned. She also developed pneumonia and has remained at home after testing negative for the virus late last month.
Katherine Heaviside, a spokeswoman for the hospital, said it always had an “adequate supply of PPE ready for our personnel and will continue to do so until this crisis has subsided.”
“The instances of front-line workers at Long Island Community Hospital testing positive for COVID-19 symptoms appear to be no greater or no lesser than those of nearly every other hospital across the region,” she said, adding that “the spread of this virus is not exclusive to a hospital atmosphere, and it is impossible to identify any person’s point and place of infection.”
Vasquez said her family worked hard to ensure the virus didn’t spread throughout the household. Family members wore masks and kept their distance from her.
But sometimes even the best precautions fail.
That was the case with Sherry-Ann Ramkaran, a certified nursing assistant at AristaCare at Cedar Oaks, a skilled nursing facility in South Plainfield, New Jersey, who said she took multiple precautions to avoid bringing the virus home.
She had masks. She washed her hands. She sanitized.
She even changed her routine.
Ramkaran said she used to head straight for the shower after getting home from work but after the pandemic, she would undress at the door inside her house to minimize the risk of tracking it in on her clothing.
Still, the virus rampaged through her home, infecting not just her but her husband and daughter as well. Only her 19-year-old son did not get sick.
Ramkaran, 43, said she didn’t know where she picked up the virus, but her daughter, Simran Singh, 21, said, “It’s obvious.”
“I know the kind of work that she’s done; I know the extent and the hours that she has to work,” Singh said. “She works so hard and just knowing what she does every day and the amount of people she interacts with, of course I was scared for her.”
Sidney Greenberger, chief executive of AristaCare, said the center implemented a COVID-19 plan in early March.
“Once COVID-19 was confirmed within our center, staff were encouraged to change into and out of their scrubs at the center itself in order to mitigate the risk of bringing the virus home to their families,” he said.
Of 141 employees tested for the virus, 25 tested positive. Of those, 23 recovered and returned to work. Two remain out, he said.
Singh, a student who came home from Northeastern University in Boston because of the pandemic, said she cared for both of her parents while studying for finals and being sick herself.
“It was very scary,” she said, recalling the nights she spent worrying about her parents. “I felt very helpless.”
Age, of course, plays a role in how children react to the stresses of having a parent on the front lines of the pandemic. For older children of health care workers, the pandemic has changed when they first start to worry.
“Developmentally, adult children tend to worry about their older parents when their older parents are elderly,” said Dr. Victor Fornari, vice chairman of child and adolescent psychiatry at the Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, New York, but now “this is causing adults to worry sooner.”
Kaila, 23, and Sage Freeman, 19, said they worry for their mother, Tina, who is a hospice nurse in San Francisco. “It’s scary to know that she’s going out every day,” Kaila Freeman said.
The pandemic brought Dr. Gerry Cordani, 75, out of retirement and back into a hospital in early April, this time working as physician liaison at Northwell Health’s Huntington Hospital on Long Island.
Cordani’s son Daniel, 42, said he’s infuriated to see his father putting himself at such high risk, and that it came down to authorities calling for all health care professionals to volunteer to help, even the ones who were retired.
Still, he’s also proud.
“When I tell people, it brings a tear to my eye,” he said. “My father, he’s doing something very good. I just wish it wasn’t him at that age.”