In April, Dr. Jonathan Maware, received a call about his mother who was being treated for COVID-19 at a Long Island hospital.
"Your mother is not going to make it. You should get here as quickly as possible," he recalled the doctor saying.
She would not be able to live much longer, he was told. The doctor asked him to come right away.
But Maware, who serves as the administrator and chief operating officer of Queens Boulevard Extended Care Facility, a nursing home in Woodside, felt he could not leave his work behind. April marked the height of the COVID-19 crisis in New York City, ushering in one of the most dangerous moments for nursing homes, whose elderly residents were most vulnerable to the disease.
To date, more than 3,400 individuals have died at nursing home or adult-care facilities in the city, roughly 14% of all those who died of COVID-19.
As vaccinations get underway in the city's more than 150 nursing homes, much of the focus has been on elderly residents getting immunized. But the reactions by staff members at the Woodside nursing home have served as a reminder that they too were victims of the pandemic. For most of them, the pandemic represented the most difficult period of their professional lives. Bound by duty, many stayed despite dangerous conditions.
On Wednesday morning, a team from Walgreens assembled before 8 a.m. at the Woodside nursing home, turning a cafeteria into a makeshift vaccination room. Under a federal program New York has opted into, Walgreens and CVS are administering all of the shots in nursing homes.
Bernadette Zuniga, a nurse, said she was diagnosed with COVID-19 in early April but her symptoms have persisted ever since. She became what is known as “a long-hauler” — a person who continues to have symptoms of the virus long after the disease is gone.
Prior to getting infected, she said work felt like "chaos."
"It was like, who gets sick first?," she said. "But you can't stop."
Hear Gothamist's Elizabeth Kim's piece on the Woodside nursing home on WNYC:
On Wednesday morning, as she stood waiting to receive the first dose of the vaccine, she admitted to being excited but also a little nervous.
She is worried the shot may bring back symptoms like fatigue. Other potential side effects include pain or soreness in the injection area and fever.
But like many healthcare workers, Zuniga said she balanced that risk against the greater risk of getting infected again.
For Zuniga and others, the vaccination process took several minutes. There was paperwork to sign along with a brief conversation about the side effects. But once she sat in the chair, the shot itself took mere seconds. It was quick and painless, she said.
Out of 280 residents at Queens Boulevard Extended Care, seven tragically died because of the pandemic. But given the severity of the crisis, the number could have easily been higher.
Afterwards, U.S. News & World Report and Newsweek ranked the Queens Boulevard nursing home as among the best in the state for the protocol and protections that employees instituted during the outbreak.
"It made me think of my mom," Maware said, recalling the moment when he heard the news.
Suddenly, the towering and composed administrator fell silent as he tried to hold back his tears. His mother died at age 71. He was never able to say goodbye.
"I know that she's smiling from the clouds, that I did the right thing to make sure that most of these residents survived," he said.
Afterwards, he apologized for losing his composure. He never cries in public, he said.