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COVID-19 has turned our world upside down. 2020 has been a year of great hardship and loss, laying bare many enduring and systemic inequities in our society. But despite the dark moments, there are also reasons to be hopeful and optimistic. First and foremost is the response of those on the front lines — the hospital workers and people who keep our city running — whose commitment and sacrifice inspires us. We are grateful for all their hard work!

As the year draws to a close, we also want to thank and shine a spotlight on our colleagues at the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, COVID heroes whose efforts are not as commonly understood as those of their healthcare colleagues but who are just as essential in the frontline fight against the coronavirus. We thank them for their countless hours and tireless service to our city during this time of great need.

From the staff who work in the public health laboratory, to the epidemiologists who are collecting, analyzing, and reporting critical data, to the community-based staff, we are proud to celebrate their work and share a few of their stories. Of course, these are just a fraction of those we could tell. 

Crystal Sacarid​​iz
Division: Center for Health Equity and Community Wellness​​

Crystal’s experience as a crisis social worker, in addition to her six years with the Health Department, helped her quickly pinpoint gaps in services during her time working at the temporary Javits Center medical facility.

“Bringing social work resources into this space very quickly, even just to facilitate safe discharge, was highly necessary,” she said.

Crystal recognized many of her patients had additional needs beyond COVID treatment. She helped bring in extra clothing for patients experiencing homelessness, secured translation for those who didn’t speak English, and provided necessary mental health services or long-term care options for patients with severe needs. By building close relationships with staff and facilitating collaboration with the other agencies who operated within the center, Crystal advocated for the humanity we all share. 

Haddie Lizasuain
Division: Emergency Preparedness & Response

Haddie took over as Director of the New York City Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) in January. In times of non-emergency, the MRC recruits from a community-based corps of medical and non-medical volunteers to support Health Department projects. When COVID reached NYC, the MRC established a call center in 48 hours, and quickly became responsible for managing the surge of eager volunteers. Haddie worked tirelessly to evaluate and assign volunteers to areas of need across the city, even legally challenging a rule preventing immigrants with medical degrees from their countries from providing care in local facilities. 

“We have a broader vision for incorporating more equity into forward planning,” she said. “I would like to redeploy my assets toward communities with the biggest need. It hits home for me.”

Doris Keel
Division: Family and Child Health

Doris recalls when she found out that New York City public schools would be shuttered on March 16th. A DOHMH school nurse of 25 years who works at P.S. 105, in Far Rockaway, Queens, she immediately jumped into action, making hundreds of phone calls to students and families to help them prepare for what was to come. Nurses like Doris are responsible for ensuring students who take medications, require regular or follow-up medical appointments, or have chronic health conditions continue to receive regular care and treatment. Doris went above and beyond for her students, serving as a liaison between families and doctors, providing ongoing emotional support, and even sending congratulatory cards to each of the school’s 55 graduating eight graders.

“I’ve made hundreds of calls,” Doris said, “and you can always tell right away what a relief it is for parents to just get a call from Nurse Keel, from someone who can help alleviate things a little.”

Bibi Ndala
Division: Disease Control

Bibi’s work at the Health Department’s Public Health Laboratory might not have made headlines, but her and her team’s prioritization of their duty to support NYC during COVID was incredibly brave.

At the time, none of the hospitals or clinics had the equipment to do COVID testing, so everything was being done at the labs,” said Bibi. “The volume that we had was — wow — we didn’t have the staffing resources or even the testing capacity to accommodate everybody in the city, so we were working around the clock.”

Bibi and her teammates are responsible for not only helping to plan and coordinate testing site expansion, but also ensuring that test results are accurate, calculating positivity rates, and updating their electronic specimen management systems. This work contributed directly to the City’s ability to cultivate its effective approach to understanding COVID-19. 

In the midst of the many crises gripping our nation, we are inspired by the hard work of our colleagues at the Health Department. If you’d like to support this work, please consider making a donation or learn more about how we’re advancing public health for all.