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‘Public service workers are … crucial to fighting this pandemic’

By AFSCME Staff ·
‘Public service workers are … crucial to fighting this pandemic’
Pictured: Carmen De Leon. Member-provided photo.

Editor’s Note: The following is a story from the front lines of the battle against the coronavirus. During National EMS Week, we feature the story of AFSCME Local 768 (District Council 37) member Carmen De Leon from New York. De Leon was one of two AFSCME members who, in a press call last week, described not only their struggle with the coronavirus, but the urgent need for Congress to help financially strapped states, cities and towns.

“My name is Carmen De Leon, and I am a respiratory therapist at both Harlem Hospital and Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center.

“I have been a respiratory therapist for 19 years and was on the job when we went through SARS, H1N1 and Ebola. This pandemic is unlike anything we’ve seen before. It hit us fast and hard, and there is still so much to learn about how to keep people safe from this virus in the long run.

“Early on, it was clear that I was at risk since I am both asthmatic and diabetic. Still I showed up to work through February and March to help treat patients sick with COVID-19. I showed up even though we lacked the necessary personal protective equipment needed to keep us safe.

“Across the city, everyone I spoke to working in hospitals and medical facilities was in need of more PPE. We saw doctors having to make tough decisions because we had limited resources. As more workers got sick, we also scrambled to cover all patient rooms.

“Hospital clerks were told that their exposure was minimal and so they didn’t need PPE, but they ended up getting sick as well.

“By the beginning of April, I also tested positive for the coronavirus.

“The last week in March I felt many COVID-related symptoms. My lungs felt like they were on fire and I struggled to breathe, but because I did not have a high-grade fever, I was not eligible to take COVID-related sick leave.

“Then on April 2nd, after working all day, I finally had a high-grade fever, which did not break until April 11th. While I was sick, I could not stay awake and slept for almost 20 hours a day. I felt better one day and tried to go for a walk, but was breathless by the time I made it half a block. My 22 year-old daughter had to go stay with a family friend to make sure I wouldn’t get her sick.

“I would be lying if I said it wasn’t scary. Before I got sick, I saw patients come in who had some symptoms, but felt mostly OK. But then some would be put on ventilators, and some didn’t make it.

“We prepared for the worst. Which meant my daughter had to sign all kinds of documents to make sure things would be in order if anything happened to me.

“Our health and safety should have been considered from the beginning.

“Thankfully, I am now on a path to recovery and back at work again, although my breathing still isn’t where it used to be.

“Public service workers are always essential workers, but especially now, having enough health care workers like myself on staff is crucial to fighting this pandemic.

“I ask members of Congress to urgently pass state and local funding so that our communities have the resources we need to preserve essential public services, contain this virus and safely reopen the economy.

“In our hospitals, additional state and local funding means having enough support staff like nurses, respiratory therapists and environmental service workers to care for sick patients. It means having the necessary PPE to keep workers safe and vital medical equipment like ventilators. It also means having enough public safety officers and sanitation and sewage workers to keep our streets safe and water clean.

“With aid for states, cities and towns, we can ensure that these critical public services like health care, EMS and home care continue. My colleagues and I are tough, and we have gone through some of the worst. Together we can beat this.

“I will never stop showing up for my community. I hope Congress and the president show up for us.”

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