BY DIANE S. WILLIAMS, with additional reporting by Samantha Rappa-Giovagnoli
Local 3005 scientists are on the front lines of New York City’s COVID-19 response, testing for the deadly virus and its antibodies at New York City public health labs. This month the Health Dept. scientists are expanding vital testing, opening nine new COVID-19 clinics in underserved communities across the city.
“DOHMH City Research Scientists and Water Ecologists and OCME Criminalists are playing major roles in this most difficult global health crisis,” said Local 3005 President Jeff Oshins. “They are going above and beyond the scope of their duties to provide professional expertise as the city’s elite corps of disease detectives.”
“The nine new satellite clinics will be able to turn around test results in about a day, depending on volume,” said Oshins. Lab Preparedness Coordinators in Local 3005 are responsible for hiring and deploying Health Dept. disease experts to staff the community-based COVID-19 clinics, which are planned to be similar to urgent care models. The clinics will play a vital role in assuaging healthcare disparities in Black and brown communities the pandemic exposed.
DC 37 members are essential employees working around the clock to protect New Yorkers during the deadliest global pandemic in 100 years.
In February, Health Dept. research scientists coordinated testing the of travelers arriving from COVID-19 affected areas with the CDC. Health and Hospitals began sending samples from infected patients suspected to have COVID. The Health Dept. eventually progressed to project-based testing including testing in underserved communities, homeless shelters and adult care facilities.
In New York COVID-19 grew rampant and hit densely populated communities such as Corona, Queens, and large swaths of the Bronx and Brooklyn, making New York City the iconic epicenter.
New York Governor Cuomo mandated a statewide shutdown, and Mayor de Blasio and health experts urged social distancing and other protocols to curb the spread of COVID-19. They also invested resources– including New York City’s healthcare workforce– to provide free COVID-19 testing and procure additional PPE and respirators, and more.
The brave and dedicated scientists in Local 3005 work 12-hour shifts as mandated essential workers. They are deployed to every operational unit and taken out of the lab to support all operations of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME). Local 3005 members are transporting and testing samples, and acting as liaisons between city agencies and next of kin of COVID victims.
Yasmin Bright is a Local 3005 Water Ecologist who inspects and tests cooling towers for Legionnaire’s disease. Under the direction of the Incident Management System, Bright and others became couriers, picking up potentially positive COVID-19 samples from hospitals, nursing homes, and testing sites for the general public, delivering the specimens to the NYC Public Health Lab for testing during the pandemic. Bright said, “We were making four to five runs a day, transporting samples to First Avenue from all over the city.”
“There are about six or seven of us and we work 12-hour shifts,” said Bright. “It was crazy. Sometimes we’d work 18-hour shifts, some days our shifts ran from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m., six and seven days a week. As some of my co-workers began getting sick, that’s when we realized we had to change, so we began wearing gloves and we begin social distancing before it was mandated.”
Bright and others transported samples to labs where other Local 3005 scientists performed PCR analysis, the genetic test to confirm whether or not a sample is positive for COVID-19.
“The members have been fantastic in working with DOHMH and Health and Hospitals to protect public health through ongoing testing,” said Local 3005 Vice President Samantha Rappa Giovagnoli, who is the grievance rep. “These members are taking on the added responsibility as activists representing their union sisters and brothers and reaching out to the union to address any shortages of PPE, and contractual questions and concerns during this health crisis.”
Local 3005 Criminalists who typically work in the OCME Forensic Laboratories are deployed to the OCME morgue. In April, as COVID-19 deaths in New York City neared 15,000, they were lifting bodies onto gurneys and counting and transporting dead corpses stored in refrigerator trucks that served as morgue holding sites to the actual OCME morgue.
The forensics lab retains a skeleton crew of Criminalists who continue to test evidence and samples collected from homicides, sexual assaults, and other crimes, deemed by the NYPD as high priority cases.
Expanding their duties to include work typically performed by MLIs, medico-legal investigators in Local 768 and Communication Specialists in Local 1549, the City tasked Criminalists to report to OCME offices to work as liaisons between hospital administration and/or nursing homes and the NYPD to gather information needed to certify deaths and release the bodies to grieving relatives.
“At first, Criminalists used their own personal phones to contact agencies and next of kin until the union intervened,” said Rappa Giovagnoli. “This group has since been able to telecommute thanks in part to Local 3005 member Eric Ramirez, a shop steward at OCME, who provided the necessary technical expertise so members could work remotely.” Internet Technology (IT), is a function Local 2627 members usually provide. She added, “These scientists have since received work phones and continue performing this essential duty for the City.”
At its peak, one in 38 New Yorkers tested positive for coronavirus. To date about 23,700 New Yorkers died from COVID-19 or COVID-19-related illnesses.
Seven months into the pandemic, essential vigilance in New York City has led to a significant drop in COVID-19 infections rates, hospitalizations and deaths. New York City is in Phase 4 of its reopening plan. New Yorkers still are required to adhere to handwashing and social distance guidelines and wearing masks or face coverings in public spaces.