health

COVID-19 a Big Threat to 9/11 Workers, but Little Tracking or Testing So Far

Peter Woods, who suffers from 9/11-related lung, heart and kidney ailments, fears COVID-19 would be “a death sentence.”
Peter Woods, who suffers from 9/11-related lung, heart and kidney ailments, fears COVID-19 would be “a death sentence.” Photo: Courtesy of the Woods Family

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Fire Department Battalion Chief Al Petrocelli Jr. reflected on the differences in the losses of his little brother on 9/11, and of his father to coronavirus on April 1.

“With Mark, we had a funeral Mass with no body,” the 50-year-old Staten Islander said of his only sibling. “With Dad, we had a body but couldn’t have a Mass. It’s like a flip-flop, the theater of the absurd.”

In 2015, former FDNY member Albert Petrocelli wore a tribute to his son Mark, who was killed on 9/11. The elder Petrocelli died from COVID-19 earlier this month.
In 2015, former FDNY member Albert Petrocelli wore a tribute to his son Mark, who was killed on 9/11. The elder Petrocelli died from COVID-19 earlier this month. Photo: Yoav Gonen/THE CITY

Petrocelli acknowledged being “shell shocked” by the death of his father, Al Petrocelli Sr., a 73-year-old retired battalion chief with whom he had raced to Ground Zero to search for Mark, a 28-year-old commodities trader. Mark was at a breakfast meeting on the 92nd floor of the North Tower when the plane struck.

“We drove there together that day and he stayed on that pile almost until the end,” he told THE CITY. “He hung out with a group of other fathers who had also lost sons there.

“We knew the air wasn’t good, but you did what you had to do. Dad didn’t think of anything other than finding Mark.”

‘Be Extremely Careful’

As the city’s coronavirus casualty count grows, 9/11 activists say the outbreak is exacting a heavy toll among first responders and survivors of the terrorist attacks, many of whom are dealing with lung woes and other ailments linked to the toxic cloud of contaminants at the site.

“Any responder with respiratory issues is compromised and should be extremely careful,” John Feal, a retired construction demolition supervisor and 9/11 advocate, told THE CITY.

John Feal, 9/11 first-responder advocate, speaks in 2016 about extending the Zadroga Act.
John Feal, 9/11 first-responder advocate, speaks in 2016 about extending the Zadroga Act. Photo: a katz/Shutterstock

Feal, whose FealGood Foundation was instrumental in pressuring Congress to reauthorize the Victims’ Compensation Fund until 2090, tested positive for COVID-19 on March 29.

‘That Little Cough’

Petrocelli noted his father never had the telltale COVID fever.

”But he had a lot of fatigue and that little cough, you know, the World Trade Center cough, that just got worse,” Petrocelli said. “He was redoing the kitchen, and he kept pushing himself until he finally ended up in the ER.”

His father died in the hospital after testing positive for COVID-19 a week earlier on March 24.

But many first responders who say they are suffering have not been tested for the virus.

Gerard Fitzgerald, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, and George Farinacci, vice president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, told THE CITY their unions have been swamped with calls from active and retired members with coronavirus symptoms who have not been able to be tested.

“The lack of testing is a crisis in and of itself, but until we do that testing, there’s no way to quantify the extent of the problem,” Farinacci said. “We just hear when someone calls and lets us know, but nothing official.”

Firefighters respond to a vehicle collision in Bedford-Stuyvesant, April 10, 2020.
Firefighters respond to a vehicle collision in Bedford-Stuyvesant, April 10, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Exact data documenting the prevalence of COVID-19 among 9/11 responders and survivors is not available, activists and lawyers say.

The World Trade Center Health Program, a federal initiative administered by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and funded through the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, has not been monitoring the outbreak’s impact on its 77,752 enrolled first responders and 24,297 survivors.

“The WTC Health Program is not tracking cases of COVID-19 among our members, so unfortunately I don’t have any data that I can share with you,” Christina Spring, a NIOSH spokesperson, wrote in an April 8 email.

‘A Small Sample’

At least one of the WTC Health Program’s clinics, however, is monitoring the virus’ impact.

“We’ve had between 35 and 40 coronavirus cases in our program in Nassau and Suffolk that we know of thus far, and two fatalities,” said Dr. Benjamin Luft, director of the Long Island Clinical Center of Excellence for the World Trade Center Health Program, which has roughly 10,000 patients.

An FDNY ambulance rushes through Bedford-Stuyvesant during the coronavirus outbreak.
An FDNY ambulance rushes through Bedford-Stuyvesant during the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“That is a small sample and not epidemiologic, but that shows a lethality rate of nearly 6%, which is very concerning,” he added. The global mortality rate for COVID-19 is 1.4%, according to the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

Luft, an infectious disease specialist, noted that roughly half of the Long Island WTC Health Program patients have pulmonary disease, which puts them at increased COVID-19 risk.

“Now what the long-term effects of the virus will be on such a population is not clear, but it will surely have an impact on upper and lower respiratory systems,” he said. “More research will most definitely be done, but the situation is too new and too dynamic to deal with in real time.”

Lung Dysfunction, Greater Risk

Dr. Mitchell Katz, head of the city’s public health system, noted the increased coronavirus risk in the 9/11 community during a briefing about the outbreak with Mayor Bill de Blasio last month.

“We do very much worry about people from the World Trade Center incident,”  Katz said. “This is New York, right, where we have a number of people who may be suffering from lung dysfunction due to their exposure. So it’s basically that people, when your lung function and structure are not normal, your risk is greater.”

Health and Hospitals President Mitchell Katz speaks during a coronavirus press conference at City Hall, March 12, 2020.
Health and Hospitals President Mitchell Katz speaks during a coronavirus press conference at City Hall, March 12, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

While nearly 20% of the uniformed workforce of the NYPD, nearly 25% of the FDNY EMS, and 17% of firefighters are out sick, the percentage of those workers who responded to the attacks 19 years ago has not been determined, officials said.

A few coronavirus-related 9/11 first responder deaths have already been reported. Retired FDNY fire marshal John Knox, 84, died March 16 in a Long Island hospital from complications from COVID-19. Anthony Iraci, 48, a former NYPD detective and retired FDNY firefighter from Staten Island who had World Trade Center lung problems, died March 27.

On April 2, The September 11 Families’ Association posted a Facebook notice that  Patrick Glynn, a senior court clerk at Queens Supreme Court with 9/11-related lung cancer, succumbed to COVID-19. The UFOA reported on April 6 that retired FDNY Capt. Ralph Gismondi also died from the virus.

Petrocelli pointed out a recent increase in the number of death notices on a popular firefighter website, FDNY Rant. Since March 16, 22 FDNY retiree deaths have been posted on the site.

“Now I’m not saying they’re all from coronavirus, but a lot of these guys were around my dad’s age, not that old, and they worked The Pile,” Petrocelli said, referring to the World Trade Center site. “I think it’s pretty fair to think coronavirus might have had something to do with those numbers.”

Lack of Reporting

The WTC Health Program website notes medical staff has been using video-conferencing “telehealth” for its 55,000 patients who have been certified for at least one WTC-related condition, a list that covers 68 cancers and other illnesses. More than 35,000 of those patients suffer from two or more certified conditions.

The program also has extended its prescription refill program to allow patients to get a 90-day supply of medication delivered to minimize social interaction. And the program is covering limited COVID-19 testing for members with certain certified WTC-related conditions that may put them at higher risk of illness from COVID-19.

“They may not have the data yet, but the fact that the World Trade Center Health Program is taking this initiative speaks volumes about how seriously they recognize the risk facing those with a 9/11-related illness from COVID-19,” said Nick Papain, a lawyer representing 3,000 victims who have filed claims with the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund.

Matthew McCauley, a former city police officer and paramedic who also now represents 9/11 victims as an attorney, noted the problem with quantifying an ongoing outbreak.

“A lot of it is anecdotal at this point because no one has had time to capture the data,” he said, noting that nearly 7,000 NYPD officers were out sick on Monday. “It’s self-reported, which is problematic. But similar to what happened with 9/11, it will take the science a little time to catch up with what we already know.”

‘Sitting Ducks’

The threat of contracting the virus, meanwhile, fills many ailing 9/11 first responders with dread.

The smoldering pile at Ground Zero left retired city police sergeant Peter Woods with two autoimmune diseases, one of which is attacking his lungs. In the years since 2001, he also has undergone a kidney transplant and triple-bypass heart surgery.

Retired NYPD Sgt. Peter Woods, who has 9/11-related lung disease and is immunosuppressed from kidney transplant drugs, says the coronavirus outbreak has made him feel “like a sitting duck.”
Retired NYPD Sgt. Peter Woods, who has 9/11-related lung disease and is immunosuppressed from kidney transplant drugs, says the coronavirus outbreak has made him feel “like a sitting duck.” Photo: Courtesy of Woods Family

The coronavirus crisis has him feeling “helpless and overwhelmed.”

“We’re all sitting ducks,” Woods, 59, said of himself and fellow first responders and others who survived 9/11. “Here’s the reality: if I get this thing, it’s a death sentence. So right now I’m hiding but holding my own.”

Before the pandemic, Woods made a point of attending his daughter’s high school basketball games and found time to be a commissioner for the Hartsdale Fire Department. These days, he stays home and tries “not to go down that rabbit hole of anxiety and worry.”

“Listen, we’ve all got PTSD,” he said of his fellow 9/11 responders’ battle with post traumatic stress disorder. “I get hit with it in waves so I have to get out and exercise.”

One day earlier this month, Woods recalled, he loaded his two greyhounds into the car for a head-clearing walk in a local park.

“But I saw all these people there,” he said. “I never got out of the car. I can’t risk it.”

‘Relive the Losses’

Mary Fetchet, founding director of the advocacy group Voices of September 11, expressed concerns about the mental health implications of the pandemic.

“After 9/11, we saw increased rates of anxiety, depression, PTSD and even suicide,” Fetchet said. “This current crisis is bringing unprecedented levels of uncertainty and is likely causing many to relive the losses they suffered that day.”

While Petrocelli has no coronavirus symptoms, he conceded, “I’m getting by on adrenaline. I’m on my 10th cup of coffee today.”

He plans to return to work after Easter despite the ongoing threat.

“We actually talked about the virus risk on the job, and Dad just urged me to be careful,” Petrocelli said. “He taught me — ” he said, pausing to compose himself.

“He led by example.”

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