Coronavirus is a 'living nightmare' for families of first responders


'They know daddy's job is important, but they are afraid. ... I am afraid all the time.'

When you're married to a first responder, you learn to do a lot of things alone.

You take out the garbage, cheer at the kids' games, figure out all of the math problems, and lug all of the Christmas presents from the attic to the tree — alone.

You shovel two feet of snow and learn (the hard way) how to shut off the water main — alone.

And during catastrophes when your spouse is wading through the flood waters, is knee-deep in downed trees and power lines, you protect the kids and the house — alone.

Now, COVID-19, which has infiltrated every precinct and firehouse in the nation, exposing essential workers to a new and unprecedented type of poison, has presented first responder families with an even more daunting reality.

"This is beyond anything I've ever experienced before in the scope of my husband's law enforcement career," said Holly Bonner, whose husband Joe is a detective for the NYPD.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Bonner witnessed her husband sift through rubble and human remains at Ground Zero for weeks. Seven months pregnant during Hurricane Sandy, one of New York City’s most catastrophic storms, she held down the fort as he was forced to deal with transit interruptions and massive flooding.

Still, she calls COVID-19 a "living nightmare."

"The difference with the coronavirus is its invisibility," she said. "You simply don't know who's a-symptomatic or if you've been exposed."

Bonner, who is legally blind — an aggressive breast cancer treatment claiming her vision eight years ago — has more on the line than most first responder spouses. Already severely immunocompromised and still battling her cancer, both she and Joe made the difficult decision to live in separate residences in early March.

"My husband's job puts him in the epicenter of Midtown Manhattan on a nightly basis," Bonner said. "Yes, the streets have less traffic as people practice social distancing, but there are still plenty of jobs for him to respond to. In addition, he is also being exposed to his co-workers and using police vehicles that other people have previously used that day. It's not a matter of 'if' but 'when' he contracts this disease."

As a result, Bonner is solitarily grappling with the challenges of raising the couples' two daughters in this new normal. She homeschools the girls during the day before cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner for her husband and leaving a care package on their front stoop.

Joe picks up the package and waves to his family from the street. He sleeps in an Airbnb at night.

"My youngest daughter is five and will not sleep in her own bed; my oldest is having difficulties eating," Bonner said. "Neither had these issues prior to their father moving out."

She added, "They know daddy's job is important, but they are afraid. I am too. In fact, I am afraid all the time."

Family assistance agencies throughout the country who aid the families of first responders during times of sickness and crisis are now partnering with nonprofits and corporations to help amid the pandemic.

"The Department created the FDNY COVID-19 Fund through the FDNY Foundation, which assists affected members and their families," said Jim Long, director of public information for the New York City Fire Department. "One of the ways it is supporting FDNY members is by providing alternative lodging. Right now it’s based upon a seven-day stay, but that can be extended to two weeks on a case-by-case basis."

The program, which launched on April 1, works with NYC & Company, a not-for-profit travel and tourism agency, to place members in 21 different participating hotels or furnished apartments throughout the city.

More than 200 FDNY members have used the service since its inception.

"Some members have a scenario or situation at home where it may not be a good thing for them to return to their families after working," Long continued. "There may be a family member with underlying health issues who cannot afford to be exposed or impacted or by this virus. So the department has made arrangements for anyone who wants to take them where they can stay remote from their loved ones."

The National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians (NAEMT) has partnered with Hilton and American Express to donate 1 million hotel nights to frontline medical professionals across the United States during the pandemic.

Launched on April 13 and currently scheduled to run through May 31, the program offers nurses, physicians and EMTs across the nation access to rooms at no cost through the association's website. There are limited food services available and as a health precaution no daily housekeeping of rooms will be performed, but the service safeguards families after an exposure.

"NAEMT sends our deepest gratitude to all of you bravely caring for patients during this unprecedented public health crisis," the organization wrote in an email to first responders, obtained in April. "We admire you and want to support you any way we can. We hope this partnership…provides some peace of mind and the chance to recharge as you continue on your mission."

But not all first responders can feasibly distance themselves from family for an elongated period of time.

"Right now our concern is following all of the CDC and WHO guidelines as well as those of the state and city health departments,” Long noted when asked what other measures were being taken to protect the department. "We practice social distancing in our firehouses, pay strict attention to hygiene by reminding members to wash hands and not touch their faces. And in keeping our members protected, we’re doing everything we can to keep their families protected too."

Regardless of these measures, first responders are still contracting the virus in great numbers.

Rasheen Peppers, a lieutenant with the Newark Police Department in New Jersey, recently shared his story with Gothamist, saying his wife Iris, a nurse, had been forced to sleep in a separate room when he became sick with the virus.

"She had me text her what my blood pressure was, what my oxygen levels were, what my heart rate was," he told the outlet, noting he'd had "the usual run of high fever, chest pains and chills, but also felt a debilitating exhaustion."

He said two of his colleagues who contracted the virus were less lucky. Daniel Francis, 51, and Tolbert A. Furr, 59, had both died from COVID-19 weeks earlier, Furr on April 3 and Francis on April 13.

"I'd been exposed to many traumatic events. This has to be one of the top ones," Peppers said.

Meanwhile, Iris, who worked at the hard-hit Holy Name Medical Center, was particularly overwhelmed by the chaos at both home and work, he said.

"Just to have to see my wife come home and cry, sit at the table and cry like in hopelessness," he recalled. "... If people were able to see the effects that not only corona is having on the population, but the effect that it’s having on the people that have to serve those that are sick," he added, "that is going to be everlasting. This is something that's not gonna go away."

For those first responder families who do lose loved ones to coronavirus, there’s at least one small glimmer of hope.

Previously, families had to jump through hoops if their loved one died from coronavirus, and were forced to prove that their family member became infected on the job in order to receive survivor benefits from the Justice Department’s Public Safety Officers Benefits Program, which provides assistance to families of police and first responders who are killed in the line of duty.

Then in mid-May, the U.S. Senate passed the Safeguarding America’s First Responders Act, which, according to a statement released by the bipartisan group of lawmakers who sponsored the bill, establishes “a temporary presumption that COVID-19 infections will be considered to be contracted while on duty if diagnosed within 45 days of an officer’s last shift."

"Our firefighters, police officers, EMTs, and other emergency services personnel risk their lives to keep us safe, and face significantly increased hazards during this pandemic," New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, one of the bill's authors, stated at the time.

"A staggering number of public safety officers have already lost their lives to COVID-19, and we must make sure that their families are supported when they face unimaginable loss — and that’s exactly what this bill does."

Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley (R), the bill's co-author, agreed, stating that "families of those lost to COVID-19 shouldn’t face an uphill struggle to access financial support promised to them."

"Today's vote sends a loud and clear message to America's public safety officers: We appreciate your steadfast dedication in the most trying times and we’re here to help if the unthinkable happens," he said.

The bill now heads to the House of Representatives for approval. If passed, it will head to Donald Trump's desk to be signed into law.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.