With the advent of the COVID-19 vaccine, the proliferation of the booster and the slog to return to the things we love doing, the idea that the pandemic will have a long-term impact on our life in the city is ever present.
One can’t help but notice that, with schools back in session, the subways seem more crowded (although the 3.3 million riders a day are well below the 5.5 million pre-pandemic numbers) live theater and dance performances have returned, and sporting events now welcome crowds of cheering fans.
Still, we continue to be knee deep in statistics about the number of cases, deaths, and percentages of those vaccinated. While we mourn the loss of over 5 million people worldwide, 750,000 in our country, alone and 35,000 fellow New Yorkers, how are we actually dealing with our new reality? I ask this from my own firsthand experience.
I related in this paper at the pandemic’s initial onslaught how I fainted in my kitchen and was hospitalized in March 2020 because of COVID. I then suffered a rare non-infectious relapse in June of that year which landed me in the hospital again for over a week. They called it a post-COVID inflammatory syndrome. It scared the hell out of me, and my family was left to themselves to wonder if I would be OK.
Yes, I eventually recovered and am often asked if I am a long-hauler. I answer “no” since I feel fine, exercise regularly and have resumed my normal activities. I have had excellent follow-up care although the occasional shortness of breath reminds me that the COVID episodes are still on my mind.
I can’t help but wonder, however, how people who have gotten sick or suffered the loss of a loved one are coping? There seems to have been much less focus in our health care system on the long-term emotional or psychological impact of the disease.
I recently met with Larry Kelly of “Miracle Larry” fame, a fellow West Sider (and friend) whose story of how he survived his COVID episode has become legendary. You might recall that Larry became sick early in the pandemic, was taken to Mt. Sinai Morningside and spent 51 days on a ventilator and a total of 128 days in the hospital and rehab center before making it home. His return to the community was all over the print and TV news in the summer of 2020. He attributes the support of friends and family as key to his recovery.
While his case in an extreme one, Larry was open about how lucky he is to be alive and the hardest thing he now faces. “My wife is asked all the time how I am doing and says I am doing great. But great is not a good definition of how I am. I will never be great but I am getting better all the time,” he told me.
“My life has been changed forever. The most difficult part for me has been the emotional stress I feel when I go back to that dark place that I almost died.” Larry is very open about his experience and finds it helpful to talk about it. But he wonders if we will eventually forget about COVID and leave those behind who are still suffering in its wake.
There are signs that COVID has already changed the fabric of our city – affecting not only those who became sick but our neighbors and fellow New Yorkers as well.
Examples of the effects abound – labor strife around vaccinations, starkly different experiences between office workers who were able to stay at home and essential (many poorer) workers who showed up everyday day despite the ostensible dangers; people who have left the city and decided not to return – all these issues have contributed to a sense of malaise which the pandemic has helped wrought.
The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene found in a recent survey that 20 percent of parents reported that the emotional health of a child at home has been negatively affected and that concern about their children has been a real source of stress.
Over 140,000 children nation wide (nearly 5,000 in NYC alone) have been left without a caregiver causing an increase in eating disorders, depression and suicidal ideation. This has greatly affected lower income and families of color, and we are only now beginning to realize the long-term educational deficits resulting from a year and a half of remote classes.
But where do we go from here? The glass-half-full side of me believes that the NYC government will play a huge role in addressing these issues and assuring that services will be flexible to our new reality. The City Department of Education has recently announced that it is hiring 500 more social workers, psychologists and family support workers to deal with the growing mental health crisis amongst school age children. Every single school in New York City will have at least one full-time social worker or school-based mental health clinic. Even the NYPD is experimenting with using social workers to handle 911 mental health calls, albeit with mixed results so far.
Rebuilding a sense of community after months of distancing and isolation will be challenging, yet will also bring myriad possibilities for the city to come out stronger in the end. An honest, open public discussion of our collective pandemic experience is a good place to start. Larry Kelly knows this well. “I spend a lot of my time asking myself why I am here,” he recalled. “The only thing I can do is to tell my story. This is a big part of my healing.”
Stephan Russo is a West Side Spirit contributor. He served as the Executive Director of Goddard Riverside Community Center from 1998-2017.
While we mourn the loss of over 5 million people worldwide, 750,000 in our country, alone and 35,000 fellow New Yorkers, how are we actually dealing with our new reality?