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Rob Serra’s first call as a New York City firefighter was the 2001 terror attack. He’s not the kind of guy who likes to stand down.
Yet, Serra’s 9/11 service left him with breathing problems and a weakened immune system -- two factors that make him highly vulnerable to coronavirus. As a result, he had to stand down, and retreat to his basement to avoid the possibility of getting infected by his own wife and three children amid the raging pandemic.
“The kids were going to school, we had a bunch of cases in our school, our pastor passed away, so I didn’t want to take any chances,” Serra told the Daily News. “And my wife made me.”
The trauma he suffered in 2001 puts him in not just among 100,000 people being treated in the World Trade Center Health Program, but among those whose underlying illness are much more likely to make contracting COVID-19 a death sentence.
“Several of our World Trade Center-related health conditions are lower respiratory conditions, like asthma, COPD, interstitial lung disease, and that’s the primary organ effect that SARS coronavirus-2 has,” said Dr. John Howard, who oversees all the Trade Center Programs as head of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health at the CDC.
For some doctors and responders, the assault by the invisible enemy brings back the pain and fear of those days in the aftermath of the Twin Towers’ fall.
"This particular period is so, so reminiscent of the time right after 9/11. It's kind of a haunting feeling of, something's gonna happen, and there's a lot of anxiety and dread and the whole world is sort of waiting for the next shoe to drop," said Dr. Michael Crane, who runs the World Trade Center Health Program at Mount Sinai.
Craine and his team have responded by reaching out almost daily to their most vulnerable responders. Similarly, the company that runs the national program for ill responders across the country, LHI, assessed who in their population is at greatest risk.
“Out of the 20,000 people, we had about 1,700, that are highest risk individuals, we reached out to them, and basically what we’re looking for with them initially was to try to determine whether or not they were going to be able to weather this crisis,” said the program head, Mark Shays.
Brian Payne, a sales rep for the Mayo Clinic who still volunteers as a Mamaroneck firefighter despite several 9/11-linked diagnoses, said his case manager at Mount Sinai reached him by email in mid-March. That was a few days before attending his mother-in-law's funeral, a death unrelated to coronavirus, but marred by its specter.
“Something you’re not used to seeing at a wake or a funeral is people really weren’t sure how to act,” Payne said. “There definitely wasn’t much if any shaking of hands or hugs. It was kind of like a wake from a distance.”
Hospital workers who would normally be devoted to the 9/11 health program have also been diverted to coronavirus response. Crane said he and his teams have been forced to work at nearly all hours to make up for it.
Dr. Lauren Cimineri, the acting deputy director for healthcare operations at NIOSH, said the feds were trying to help any way they can, including easing up on the bureaucracy for the centers.
There is one gap that health centers can’t fill right now -- the monitoring program that is supposed to spot new 9/11-causes illnesses before its too late. “Those (medical) exams are the best way to catch these diseases early,” said Rob Serra pointing out that asbestos-linked illness takes about 20 years to emerge.
He also recalled how quickly seemingly healthy people can suddenly succumb to the disease. He pointed to 45-year-old firefighter Tommy Phelan ran the New York City marathon in November 2017 and was dead the following March, and NYPD Sgt. Ned Thompson, who thought he had the flu, but it was cancer that claimed him in months.
Some 9/11 responders like Payne still go on emergency calls, and are not too worried about getting coronavirus, but a number of 9/11 responders have already died from the disease. Robert Cardona, a 41-year-old NYPD detective who beat 9/11 linked cancer, succumbed to the virus on Wednesday.Serra has noticed his own condition deteriorating, even as he knows going for routine care is out of the question for himself and others if an infection could turn deadly.
“I’m sure I’m not the only one not getting treatment out of fear. But really it’s not my known conditions that worry me. It’s the new ones,” Serra said speaking broadly. “Yes, we are at a greater risk for COVID-19 and we can do our best to quarantine and social distance. Unfortunately, the toxins that are destroying our bodies don’t know we are on pause.”