MANHATTAN — When Suzie Lopez first reported for the COVID-19 response, much like the pandemic itself, the scene she found at the Javits Center in midtown Manhattan all seemed unreal.
“When I first got [to the Javits Center], I thought it was a movie set,” said Lopez, a program assistant at the Office of Drug User Health that operates under the state’s AIDS institute. “You see all these people in uniforms; National Guard, FEMA, doctors. It was intense.”
That was back in April 2020, the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when New York City was the epicenter of the disease in the nation and the cavernous Javits Convention Center had been converted into a giant hospital.
“One minute I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I’m helping to save the world,’” Lopez said. “The next minute I’m like,
‘What’s going on? I can’t believe this is happening.’”
Indeed, with the advent of a vaccine, the scene at the Javits Center is a lot more hopeful these day. Lopez once again volunteered to assist in its distribution as a lead for the front desk and information area of the site.
“Knowing that I can help to save a life has given me that satisfaction,” Lopez said. “We can directly help to save lives.”
As this edition went to press, vaccine supplies were dwindling. Lopez said she feared that [the site]would have to start turning people away like other sites had already done in other parts of the city. It’s a dilemma beyond their control, though the emotions are palpable.
“There are some days we want to cry and that’s OK,” Lopez said. “We continue to move; we don’t let it stop us.”
That indomitable spirit is all too familiar to Donald Grove, an opioid data coordinator at the Office of Drug User Health and a veteran of the movement to get government to properly address another epidemic, AIDS.
“This kind of basic public health is everything to me,” said Grove, who is based at the Javits Center where he collects and analyzes critical data for the state. “It means a lot to me particularly after living through some of the worst days of the AIDS epidemic.”
Back then, Grove said activists had to fight with government officials to convince them that basic AIDS prevention was necessary and not an affront to morality.
“When AIDS cases reached 100,000 or 100,000 AIDS deaths, it was not even in the front section of the New York Times,” Grove said. “I’m not taking it personally, but I am hoping that it’s why people are paying more attention now.”
Grove volunteered at the height of the COVID pandemic in April and worked at pop-up and drive-thru testing centers and also called people to provide test results. He often used a language translation service to speak with people, an experience he found particularly engaging.
At the Javits Center, he’s crunching numbers and data to provide the city and state with real-time information on the numbers and backgrounds of the people receiving a vaccine. With limited supplies and millions in need of a vaccine, this data which includes any cancellations, duplicate registrations and no-shows, cannot be understated
“I’m excited and hopeful,” Grove said. “We may actually be reaching a solution here.”
While the fight to address this public health threat is not as volatile as it once was when he fought officials on AIDS, Grove nonetheless urged his union brothers and sisters to ask questions, get information and engage officials.
“To union members I say bring your issues forward and discuss them,” Grove said. “Let’s get to where people are at because all we have is each other.”
It’s a sentiment he shares with all the volunteers at the Javits Center.
“I will stay there until everyone is vaccinated,” said Lopez. “If that’s what I have to do, I will do it. It’s our only hope for COVID.”
— David Galarza