By Jan Hoffman and Chang W. Lee April 2, 2020
PATERSON, N.J. — “Back up, sir!” shouted Kenny Kiefer, a Fire Department battalion chief, his N95 mask muffling his words.
“What?” replied the frail older man leaning out the doorway of a shelter and addiction treatment center, who had called 911 because he was having trouble breathing. Smiling timidly, he began to venture down the stairs.
Alarmed, Kiefer stepped back and thrust out his palm. “Stay right there!”
A few weeks ago, a 911 call for “respiratory distress” would have sent emergency medical technicians — EMTs — rushing into the building to examine the man and take his vitals. Now with coronavirus infections sweeping through the region, the emergency medical workers of Paterson, a poor, industrial city in the penumbra of pandemic-stricken New York, are working in a new, upside-down reality: Don’t go in a home, don’t touch the patient, and don’t take anyone to the hospital, unless absolutely necessary.
Kiefer’s job was to assess possible COVID-19 cases, to determine whether a specialized ambulance with EMTs in hazmat suits should follow up. Keeping his distance on the street, he talked to the man paused on the steps, sizing up his condition. Low fever, headache and intermittent cough.
Could he be infected with the coronavirus? Possibly. But he was neither wheezing nor gulping for breath. The chief explained to the man that he could become far sicker by being in the hospital.
“So do you just want to stay here?” he coaxed.
Looking bewildered, the man nodded and shuffled back inside.
The ambulance roared off to answer another call.
Day and night, ambulances crisscross the streets of Paterson, the eerie silence of a once-raucous city shredded by siren shrieks so pervasive it sounds as if the city is under attack.
Which, in a sense, it is.