This Story was originally published on March 28, 2020
Ambulance sirens and the drone of hovering helicopters have become the soundtrack of the neighborhood around Elmhurst Hospital, as the number of coronavirus cases in Queens has ballooned to more than 7,000, the most of any borough.
Since a testing center opened outside the public hospital last week, Queens residents — most wearing face masks, some with scarves obscuring their faces — wait daily in a line lacking social distancing, hemmed in by a metal barricade stretching along Baxter Avenue.
They’re waiting to get tested, sometimes for hours and in the rain, in search of answers.
A spokesperson for the city hospital system told THE CITY that Elmhurst is the center of the coronavirus crisis. Some 13 coronavirus patients died in one 24-hour period this week.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has said an area with a disproportionate number of coronavirus cases would be considered a “cluster,” but has demurred from identifying any neighborhoods in New York City as such. Yet multiple local elected officials representing Elmhurst and neighboring Jackson Heights say that the area appears to be one.
THE CITY’s analysis of statistics on emergency room visits last week found that the neighborhoods of Elmhurst and nearby Jackson Heights and Corona saw a greater surge of residents heading to ERs than any other neighborhood in the city.
‘The Worst Possible Disaster’
Max Falkowitz, who has lived in Jackson Heights for five years, has been rationing the number of stories he reads daily about the coronavirus and its rapid spread across the city so that his mental health doesn’t spiral anymore than it already has.
“Watching the neighborhood over the past two weeks feels like a movie where you know a tsunami is coming for the cute little beach town and everyone on land is just acting like things are normal,” said Falkowitz, a 31-year-old freelance writer. “You’re waiting for the disaster.”
On Sunday, the day the governor’s “PAUSE” on New York State executive order went into effect, Falkowitz went to Food Dynasty, a local supermarket. He said he saw people crammed together just like on any other day in Jackson Heights.
The only difference was that they were wearing face masks.
When Falkowitz first moved to the neighborhood, local friends warned him to steer clear of Elmhurst Hospital unless he was on “the verge of death,” he said.
“For it to be the epicenter of this now is the worst possible disaster.”
‘We Are Scared for Her’
Afia Eama, 20, has not gone outside for two weeks.
So she spends her days studying for a journalism degree at Hunter College, reporting for the student newspaper, video chatting her friends, and streaming Itaewon Class, a Korean drama on Netflix.
The television, tuned into the news stations, is always on in the one-bedroom apartment that she shares with her parents in Elmhurst.
Occasionally, she watches the world from the apartment’s fire escape, where she can see a slice of the testing center line. She and her brother were both born at the hospital.
Anxiety levels are high in the small space. Her dad, a cabbie, has diabetes and stopped driving two weeks ago. Her mother, a home health aide to an elderly woman who lives several blocks away, is now the family’s sole financial support.
She walks past Elmhurst Hospital daily.
“We are both scared for her. It’s a lot to process, the fact that it’s happening in our own neighborhood,” said Eama. “We don’t really have income coming in. We have to pay rent, just keep up with the bills. She has to basically work right now.”
Eama had a midterm Thursday on immigration policy.
‘Maybe the Air Is Unclean’
In Jackson Heights, Shrima, 25, is worried about her parents.
She says her father has preexisting conditions and shares an Elmhurst apartment with multiple other people. Her mother works at Elmhurst Hospital, in the psychiatric unit.
For now, Shrima is comforted that her mom isn’t “frontline, frontline” working in the ER or ICU.
“She doesn’t have to see that day to day, but she said the hospital environment is getting different,” said Shrima, who did not want her last name published. “There are no visitors, no outpatients at all anymore. It’s a really tense time.”
She managed to procure one N95 face mask for her mother.
Since she heard about the situation at Elmhurst Hospital, she hasn’t gone on any neighborhood walks topping five minutes.
“I grew up in the area. Now, just walking around you feel like maybe the air is unclean,” said Shrima. “Everybody who is sick is just concentrated in one place.”
‘I Can’t Tune It Out’
Briallen Hopper has been in self-quarantine for almost two weeks. She called the city’s coronavirus hotline only to be told not to bother trying to get tested. The person on the line told her to only leave her apartment if she could not breathe.
After a week of being unable to eat and sleeping fitfully, she’s starting to feel better, at least physically. But she lives alone and said she’s feeling very isolated from the neighborhood she loves. The sirens are impossible to escape.
“I can hear what’s happening to the neighborhood all the time. I can’t tune it out,” said Hopper, a 41-year-old Elmhurst resident who works as a creative writing professor at Queens College.
Her quarantine is up on Sunday. Her plan is to step outside.
“Hopefully, it will be a sunny day. Hopefully, I won’t run into any neighbors,” Hopper said. “Or hopefully I’ll run into them from six feet away and just stand in the sunshine and just try to make comfort in the fact that people are doing their best and spring is still coming.”
‘The Absolute Epicenter’
Sascha Segan and his wife have decided that if they get sick, they want to avoid Elmhurst Hospital. They’re researching more distant hospitals and methods to get there without calling an ambulance.
“It really seems to be that right now, our neighborhood is the absolute epicenter of the epidemic in the U.S. and we have to be very careful about that,” said Segan, a 45-year-old technology writer who lives in Jackson Heights.
Local grocery stores are so packed, leading him to think he should quarantine for two weeks after a recent visit for supplies.
He last went outside two days ago. For exercise, he’s started jogging in the courtyard adjacent to his apartment building.
But if he sees anybody else there, he goes back inside.
‘Going to Get Worse’
Elmhurst Hospital is a public safety net hospital that serves all New Yorkers regardless of immigration or insurance status, and local officials say that it serves a community of mostly immigrants.
THE CITY previously reported that the hospital can handle 15 to 20 critically ill patients between its intensive care unit and an intermediate care unit called a stepdown. De Blasio said Thursday that the hospital was the number one priority of the city’s public hospital system and that 40 more ventilators and additional staff had been added.
On Thursday morning, 54 of the hospital’s 63 ventilators were in use, according to a source close to the hospital.
It is unknown how many total coronavirus patients are at Elmhurst Hospital and City Hall has declined to disclose the number of cases by neighborhood.
Councilmember Francisco Moya, who represents Elmhurst, Corona and Jackson Heights, zeroed in on these neighborhoods as the epicenter of the virus. Obtaining information about the number of infections and deaths in specific neighborhoods is “necessary,” he said, though not at the cost of diverting city personnel from essential priorities.
“The focus needs to be on staffing levels,” Moya said. “The hospital is operating at 80% capacity on a regular day, up to 125% at this point and it’s only going to continue to get worse as more tests are done as more cases are found to be positive.”
Assemblymember Catalina Cruz, who represents Corona and parts of Elmhurst and Jackson Heights, cautioned that other parts of the city would soon be experiencing the same explosion of cases and fatalities if New Yorkers continue to assume that their general health will protect them from this virus.
“We should wear a mask at all times, we should have gloves and that we should be protecting one another,” Cruz said.
“Until we do that, the 24-hour period is going to repeat itself not just in Elmhurst, but all around the country.”
“This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.”