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Coronavirus May Prove More Dangerous For 9/11 First Responders

Mark Lennihan
Firefighters work beneath the vertical struts of the World Trade Center's twin towers in Manhattan, following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The health effects of COVID-19 pose an extra danger to people with underlying health conditions — like the thousands of workers who sprang into action on September 11, 2001. 

Michael Barasch is an attorney who represents members of the 9/11 community, including the rescue workers and cleanup crews who spent months in the pile of rubble after the World Trade Center towers collapsed in New York City. 

Barasch said 9/11 first responders have developed a wide range of illnesses because of the toxins they were exposed to at Ground Zero. 

“We have a host of respiratory illnesses such as asthma, reactive airways disease, pulmonary fibrosis,” Barasch said. 

“We’re seeing so much skin cancer, but after that we're seeing so much prostate cancer, lung cancer, esophageal cancer, kidney, brain, liver cancer.” 

Now, Barasch has noticed a disturbing trend these past few months, as the coronavirus pandemic claims their lives. 

“We are seeing so many people in the 9/11 community die from COVID, which just wreaks havoc on their compromised immune systems,” Barasch said. 

“They are more vulnerable to this COVID virus than the average person.”

More than a dozen of the first responders that Barasch represents have died of COVID-19. He expects that number will soar into the hundreds. 

A big concern for Barasch is that 9/11 first responders didn’t have access to necessary regular medical screenings. Non-emergency care was shut down to prevent the spread of the virus. He said a lot of the respiratory diseases that afflict 9/11 first responders cannot be detected in a virtual doctor visit. 

“Early detection is the key with any illness,” Barasch said. 

“Someone with underlying reactive airways disease has to have their lungs checked all the time.”

As Long Island reopens for business, he wants 9/11 first responders to be extra cautious because their illnesses and compromised immune systems put them at higher risk. 

“Do not go outside,” Barasch said. 

“I don't care if the community is reopening. You are so vulnerable. Do not think that you're okay just because some restaurants are now opening. You're not safe.” 

Credit Robin Lacker
Arthur Lacker of East Meadow spent hundreds of hours at the World Trade Center site after 9/11, hauling away debris and breathing in toxic dust. He developed chronic asthma, and then lung cancer. He died from COVID-19 on April 2.

Arthur Lacker spent hundreds of hours at the World Trade Center site hauling away debris — and breathing in toxic dust. He developed chronic asthma, and then lung cancer. 

But his wife Robin said it was COVID-19 that killed her husband in April. 

“His life was cut too short,” Robin said. 

“And I know that he was 73-years-old. But he had a good 10-15 years more, and that was just cut short.” 

She said Arthur loved to dance, and he loved to tend to his garden at their Long Island home. Robin brought Arthur to the hospital on March 22. It was the last time she saw him in person. 

“It’s like a…it feels like a bad dream, you know?” Robin said. 

“It doesn’t seem real.” 

Robin said Arthur’s immune system was compromised because of his 9/11-related illnesses, and that’s why she worries about people who do not take coronavirus safety precautions seriously. 

“People have to be safe because you don't know who you're affecting by being careless and being out there because you want to get things done or you want to go into a store or you want to be at the beach or running your daily life, you know? You can't right now,” she said. 

Robin said it’s important for everyone to wear a mask in public, because you cannot always tell just by looking whether someone is at higher risk of COVID. 

Desiree reports on the lives of military service members, veterans, and their families for WSHU as part of the American Homefront project. Born and raised in Connecticut, she now calls Long Island home.
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