Coronavirus in New York: 24 hours on the front line


Gravestones of a cemetery are seen with the Manhattan skyline

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Last Tuesday, the balance sheet of coronaviruses in New York had exceeded that of the attacks of September 11 against the World Trade Center.

The figure was not reached until three weeks after the city’s first coronavirus death.

The epidemic has placed New York City at the center of the global pandemic and has strained city emergency workers and frontline workers.

During the day on Tuesday, six of those people – two doctors, a funeral director, two retirement home workers and a food delivery man – kept a diary of their day and shared it with the BBC.

Here is their story.

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Midnight, Tuesday April 7

Kathleen Flanagan is back from a late shift in a nursing home. The television is on in the living room, broadcasting the sitcom That’s 70s Show. As has become the custom in her house, she shouts “Hello” to let her family know that she is at home and to prevent them from contacting them.

She goes down the stairs to the utility room, takes off her clothes and showers.

Everything she has worn at work has to go to the washing machine before she sees her husband and children.

When she goes back up the stairs, she is greeted by a bouquet of sunflowers in the kitchen. A card from her eight-year-old son reads: “Keep kicking mom! “

Two of his three sons are asleep on the sofa waiting for him. She cooks eggs and spinach for dinner and shares the details of her day with her husband – the good news is that coronavirus patients in one of the centers she oversees are starting to look better, but in another, the situation is getting worse.

She opens her laptop to do work and falls asleep somewhere between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m.


Doctor Jennifer Haythe is awakened by a call from her hospital’s intensive care unit, informing her of a patient in a deteriorating Covid-19 condition.

Aged 46, he hangs up and turns and turns over in bed, worried about the patient. She rethinks the plan for them, then meets the increasingly familiar feeling of loneliness.

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Like many healthcare professionals working with coronavirus patients, Jennifer lives apart from her family. She lives in an apartment in Greenwich Village, while her husband and children are in their home in the north of the state.

Faced with a strange silence outside and missing from her loved ones, she does a deep breathing exercise: “In for four, hold for seven, go out for eight. “It must work because she is falling asleep.


Out of town, in the city of Corinth, New York, Faith Willett, director of nursing care in a nursing home, is awakened by a staff member reporting a high fever. She advises him to isolate himself and contact a doctor as soon as possible.

Faith feels sick and struggles to go back to sleep. She scrolls her phone to see the latest news on the coronavirus epidemic, paying special attention to local updates that may be of concern to residents and their families.

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Muslim woman prays in Times Square - April 7

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In a deserted Times Square, a Muslim woman prays on Tuesday

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The news is so surreal that the 46-year-old nurse wonders if she is sleeping. She wakes up her husband to ask him if she is dreaming. “No, babies, you’re awake,” he says. He tells her to rest.

After a few hours of disturbed sleep, she wakes up. She grabs her computer and scans the latest updates from her colleagues. She can breathe a sigh of relief. There are no confirmed cases – yet.


Funeral director Steven Baxter has already left the house. His hours have changed completely since the virus struck, as he and New York funeral workers struggle to keep up with the rising number of deaths.

The time to wear a suit at work is over. He is now wearing “scrubs” which he can later throw away without risking cross-contamination. The sneakers he wears at work are always kept outside.

He goes to a nursing home, where he has to recover the body of another coronavirus victim. It is the first of several visits he will have to make that day.

6:30 am

Back in Greenwich Village, Doctor Jennifer Hayth wakes up with her alarm. She opens her eyes with the fleeting hope that the past few weeks have been a bad dream.

She takes a shower and gets ready for work. There is no dog for her, no husband to say goodbye and no children to prepare breakfast.

She walks over to a cafe where a woman walking her dog notices her doctor’s uniform and thanks her. At the cafe, the only other customer – a retired police officer – pays for his coffee.

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Composite image of Kathleen, Jenn and Saru


Nursing home worker Kathleen (L), doctor Jennifer (C), delivery driver Sarujen (R)

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Peace Train, the song by Cat Stevens, is broadcast on the radio while commuting to work at Columbia University Medical Center. She hasn’t heard it for a while and it gives her energy. She looks over the highway at USNS Comfort – a Navy hospital ship docked in New York where coronavirus patients are being treated – and thinks she looks almost majestic.

When she arrives at work, she puts on her mask, dress, gloves and any other equipment necessary to work with coronavirus patients and heads for another day at the ICU.

7:00 a.m.

Nurse Kathleen Flanagan wakes up with a hug from her eight-year-old son. Before leaving the house, he dances to the song High Hopes by the group Panic! At the disco.

She listens to it again in the car, applying the lyrics to her own life.

Mom said not to give up, it’s a little complicated …

I must have had very high hopes of living

Listening to the song, she passes the traffic light where last month she received a phone call that changed everything. A colleague at a nursing and rehabilitation center in New York told her that two residents had fever and respiratory symptoms – the first signs of coronavirus in one of the six facilities she supervises.

She was on her way to another center at the time and was faced with the decision to help her remotely or change her plans and get on the front line of the epidemic. She returned her car.

Her normal job does not include direct patient care. But three weeks later, she continues to play a practical role in the centers with coronavirus patients despite the risks.


At another nursing home in Glens Falls, New York, Faith Willett has been working for about an hour and there is already cause for concern.

Before leaving the house this morning, she said to herself out loud in the shower, her personal mantra, “We have that. Like every day for the past few weeks, she hopes there will be no signs of coronavirus in the center.

But as a nurse walked out of a resident’s room during routine morning checks, Faith could tell with her own eyes that this was bad news – the resident had a high temperature and was out of breath reading her Bible.

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Faith Willett


Coronavirus has forced caregivers like Faith Willett to go against all of their natural instincts

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Everyone in the house knows that it could end up being the day the virus spreads. Masks must be issued and the door to the resident’s room must be closed, only designated caregivers wearing full protective gear are allowed.

Faith considers order.

You should never close a door to a resident’s room unless asked to do so – it is a violation of their rights; it’s forced isolation; it’s abuse, she thinks. But she remembers that they have to go after all of their caregiving instincts to save lives.

A nurse in full protective gear enters the room to perform the test. There are tears in the nurse’s eyes, but they soften on entering. She finishes the test, packs it and takes it to the lab. Faith admires the woman’s bravery for being able to do this.

9:00 a.m.

Steven Baxter sorts death certificates and other documents at Gannon Funeral Home in Manhattan. The phone line has just opened, so he’s preparing for another day of calling families who have lost loved ones because of the virus.

The 53-year-old man recently transformed the chapel of the funeral home into a mortuary. He has a rule: the dead must be treated with respect and have sufficient space. But the number of incoming bodies is difficult to track.

Later that day, he will have to take the bodies of eight Covid-19 patients to be cremated and chase a supplier over the cremation boxes, which are becoming increasingly rare.

It will take about three weeks before the person he gathered this morning can be cremated – the pandemic has strained the system, creating significant backlogs.

All his days merge into one for the moment. The “withdrawal” this morning was like anything else in the days of the coronavirus – he put on a respirator and other protective gear, and used a disinfectant spray while he worked to make sure he transferred the body safely.


People who are not directly on the front line also perform critical tasks to prevent the spread of the virus.

Since the start of the pandemic, Dr. Michael Morgenstern has swapped his metro ride for an upstairs walk. This morning, he is connecting to the Zoom videoconferencing platform for his first meeting of the day.

Many of his patients are elderly and part of his role is now to explain the risks of coronavirus and the precautions to take.

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People queuing at a food distribution center in Harlem, New York

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People lining up at a food distribution center in Harlem

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The first patient wants to go out and visit two other doctors. Michael asks the son, who is also on the phone, to try to see if the appointments can be made by phone or via a video platform.

He is concerned about people exposed to the virus and has spent much of his morning so far working on a petition calling on the public to wear non-medical face masks, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.

He repeats the mantra “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of healing” for himself while he works.

His legs are shaking as he begins his second date of the day. He is nervous about what is going on in the world.


Faith Willett receives a call from the nurse who fell ill – she cannot be tested and has instead been labeled “presumed positive”.

Faith is angry at the lack of testing for a front-line worker. She fears residents may have been exposed and wonders – selfishly, she thinks – if she too could have been.

Another five people working from home were tested for Covid-19 due to symptoms – four were negative and the fifth is pending.

Faith and her colleagues are all worried about the same thing: they don’t want to be the person who brings the virus into the facility.


At another nursing home and rehabilitation home, Kathleen Flanagan spent much of the morning checking in on residents with symptoms of coronavirus.

The hospital calls to discuss the return of a long-term resident, assuring him that he is alert and responsive.

Two others are in the hospital. We’re not doing well. When asked who her next of kin were, she replied, “We are her family.”

She urges the doctor to fight for him.

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Medical staff rubs face outside Wyckoff Heights medical center April 07, 2020

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At the Wyckoff Heights Medical Center, a hospital employee takes a moment to take a break

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Michael Morgenstern sees his next patient by video call. An elderly person with cancer.

The cancer appears to be spreading, but while the patient is continuing his chemotherapy, he is holding back the addition of radiotherapy for the moment due to the risk Covid-19.

Michael is worried. He advises parents who are still outside to consider wearing face masks when they are around the patient.

He continues to see patients and work with volunteers for his campaign against coronaviruses throughout the morning. One of the patients was born shortly after the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, he thought.


Dr. Jennifer Haythe tours the ICU. Everyone she sees is a Covid-19 patient. They are all on fans.

She overtakes her colleagues but can only see their eyes. She sees stress, but also hope and courage.

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A patient is transported across the skyway to the New York-Presbyterian-Columbia University Medical Center - April 7

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Patient is transported to Jennifer’s hospital in Manhattan

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In caring for sick and dying patients, she reflects on what it should be for them and their families.

“A hospital without visitors. What is that? She wonders.

12:30 p.m.

Sarujen Sivakumar, a 22-year-old Lebanese delivery team manager for Eat Offbeat – a catering business run by immigrants and refugees – goes to work.

Like many businesses across New York, his business had to redesign itself in the midst of the pandemic and now sells “weekly packages of coronaviruses for meals and snacks.”

As he begins his journey, he is struck again by the tranquility of the city. In the six years since he arrived here as a refugee, he has never seen him like this. There are no groups talking, no interpreters at the metro station. He almost feels like he’s in a video game.

Before the epidemic, he greeted his colleagues with special handshakes and hugs. But when he enters the kitchen today, he knows he has to keep his distance.

1:00 p.m.

It’s Glens Falls nursing home time for visits.

Faith and her colleagues take the residents into the dining room where there are large windows through which they can see their loved ones.

Families wait outside in their cars and take turns at the windows. They agreed to limit their visits to 10 minutes each.

As the emotional meetings take place through the glass, Faith watches the range of tears shed – joy, laughter, sadness and, of course, fear.

1:45 p.m.

Business leaders in Sarujen say they are too afraid to take the train to work, but are also concerned about how they would survive financially if the business stopped operating.

Sarujen knows how hard he and the rest of the company have worked to get to where they are today. He is concerned that if it closes, it will not be the same in the future.

There is little time to talk about it in depth because they have deliveries to make.

2:30 p.m.

Steven Baxter goes to a funeral home to recover the body of another coronavirus victim.

He received a call the day before from a man whose father had died. He couldn’t afford what the company was charging for a cremation and needed someone else to take over.

As he recovers the body, Steven is angry at what he sees as the exploitation of victims of a health crisis. He thinks the price charged is four times the city average.

4:20 p.m.

This is the news that everyone feared. The result for the fifth employee tested at Faith Willett is positive.

She thinks there is no time to feel – she needs to act.

It begins the difficult process of alerting residents and their families.

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Thank you messages are written on the sidewalk outside of Mt. West Sinai Medical Center

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Messages for medical staff appeared outside the Mount Sinai West medical center

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5:00 p.m.

While talking to a patient earlier in the day who couldn’t get a mask, Dr. Michael Morgenstern shows him how to make a t-shirt.

He decides that others may also need to see how to do it, so he shoots a video and online sharing.

6:00 p.m.

As Sarujen drops off his last package, he receives a call asking him to join a team meeting on the future of the business.

At the meeting, they agreed that the delivery drivers would take the chefs to work to avoid the trains.

He is happy to be able to continue working, but exhausted from the stress of the virus and the day’s concerns about his work.

8:00 p.m.

Steven Baxter returns from the funeral home but his day is not over.

Her twin sons play basketball in the backyard. They ask him if he should take a shower. When he says yes, they know what kind of day he must have had.

For the next few hours, he will handle calls from more bereaved families. He has no time to speak to his wife, who is also the funeral director.

He falls asleep in front of his children. He must be in another nursing home to pick up another body at 4:00 a.m.


Jennifer takes a hot bath and is ready to crawl into her bed. Even if her hours have not changed, she feels much more exhausted than before.

As she responds to more texts on patient care, she reviews her feelings. Achy, tired, sore throat. She wonders if she should get tested.


Faith Willett receives a call from a nurse who tells her that she cannot work a scheduled shift. She is not sick, but news has circulated about today’s positive outcome in the nursing home.

The skills and training of the nurse are invaluable. Faith cannot understand the woman’s decision, which she sees as a jumping ship in times of crisis.

9:00 p.m.

Jennifer is watching an episode of TV sitcom Friends. That’s all she can manage to watch these days – she’s having trouble focusing on something too heavy.

She has a nice FaceTime evening with her kids before turning off the lights. She has not seen them in person for eight days.

As she closes her eyes, she mentally notes, “Thank the cast of Friends when it’s over. “

10:00 p.m.

Kathleen Flanagan has been at home for about an hour. It was the usual routine – a cry of “hello” to the family, clothes in the washing machine again, a shower again.

She only has time for one meal a day at the moment. Today it was still eggs and spinach.

She is going to sleep with The Office playing on Netflix. It’s her closing time before she has to start again. But her phone stays close in case someone needs her.


There are only a few hours left before Faith starts working again. She tried to rest, but was woken up by an email reminder from the Ministry of Health about an upcoming call about the virus.

There has been no news from her nursing home of new symptoms or worsening of symptoms. But that doesn’t mean she can relax.

Throughout that day, Tuesday April 7, another 779 people died from coronaviruses in New York State – a new record.

This sinister record is again exceeded the next day.

Supermoon rises behind Empire State Building - April 7, 2020

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All images were taken on Tuesday April 7


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