The nation’s 9/11 first responders, many of whom were made sick from working at Ground Zero, have been taking extra precautions during the coronavirus outbreak, to ensure that their compromised immune system does not come into contact with the virus.
It was in the days after the 2001 terror attacks that thousands of construction workers, police officers and firefighters worked in the rubble piles where the World Trade Center previously stood, and in the years since, many of them have seen a decline in their health, often dealing with respiratory ailments. With many of them still having breathing issues, contracting COVID-19 could prove deadly, meaning many of our nation’s heroes have been forced to isolate themselves from others in the hopes that they don’t contract the virus.
Despite the cause for concern, many first responders have been trying to keep a level head throughout the current crisis.
“I should be fine. It’s just really about staying mindful of staying clear,” Lt. Michael O’Connell (ret.) of the New York City Fire Department said to Fox News. He was a 25-year-old probationary firefighter or “proby” when he spent 9/11 assisting with rescue efforts and spent the weeks after sifting through the soot and rubble piles at Ground Zero as a part of bucket brigade searches.
“I had responded in and my Captain Shelly Baracus, who has since passed away of 9/11 [related] cancer, he grabbed me, knowing that I hadn’t even graduated from the academy yet and the words he said to me was, ‘you don’t leave my side all day. You’re my proby and you are coming home with me at the end of this tour,’” recalled O’Connell of the day of the terror attacks.
"It’s just really about staying mindful of staying clear…"
The lieutenant spent those days after 9/11 working 24-hour shifts on and off and as a result developed sarcoidosis, a disease in which collections of inflamed cells abnormally form within the lungs and develop into lumps known as granulomas, in 2009. O’Connell was forced to retire early from FDNY. He’s spent the time since raising his family and working with advocacy groups like the Feal Good Foundation to help other first responders get help through the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund.
Since the coronavirus pandemic has hit the U.S., O’Connell has been spending his days like most others, social distancing along with his wife and three children.
“I have a home in Pennsylvania that we had built when I came out of the Fire Department," he said. “We're going back and forth with the majority of the time we're going to spend there because it's in the mountains. It's really secluded from everybody. And I think that's like the safest place for me. But because of my wife’s work, even though she's working from home and the kids with their schooling and stuff need to be homeschooled, you know, it's easier to be on Long Island because this is where all this stuff is.”
“Normal life for us right now is taking care of them, her taking care of her work and me taking care of myself.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) World Trade Center Health Program recently released guidelines that provided instructions on how first responders can prevent contracting COVID-19 and that they will cover testing and treatment.
“We are able to provide COVID-19 testing and care to members who are at high risk due to certified WTC-related conditions while ensuring that the Program adheres to its WTC-related care mission, Program requirements, and the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act,” reads the statement.
The Health Program says that they are expanding the use of telehealth options, providing home delivery for filled prescriptions and implementing in-person safeguards at their facilities.
Officials at the Department of Justice’s September 11th Victims Compensation Fund told Fox News that they have a well-established expedited process for claims in which they can issue an award of funding and process payments within 3 to 4 weeks.
“Claimants facing these difficult circumstances can request that the VCF expedite the processing of their claims,” a 9/11 VCF spokesperson said in a written statement to Fox News.
John Feal, an advocate for first responders and founder of the Feal Good Foundation said that’s it’s not just those in the New York City-area that need to take caution.
“One hundred percent of anybody who was at Ground Zero or the Pentagon is compromised because of their underlying health issues, whether it's severe respiratory illnesses, upper and lower, restrictive airway diseases, gastrointestinal,” Feal said to Fox News.
“Sadly, the 17,000 plus that has a certified 9/11-related cancer. These men and women need to heed the advice of the medical experts and practice social distance and take it seriously," he said. "I'm taking this serious. I've had pneumonia three times in the last five years and I'm not going to lie to you. It scares the snot out of me.”
He added that what the nation needs at this time of crisis is humanity.
“We need to put the politics aside,” he said. “The true spirit of a human being is to care…and we need to go back to that. And I believe this disease and this pandemic will show who is full of empathy and sympathy and caring and will show who doesn’t care. And those selfish people and those are the ones who are in Costco buying thousands of rolls of toilet paper at a time.”