On March 1, 2020, city health officials reported the first known case of COVID-19 in New York state. The weeks that followed changed many New Yorkers’ lives.

Maria Generoso lost her job at a radiology clinic. Heidi Poulakos switched to Zoom to finish up her final semester of nursing school. Jen Lovallo was stuck in her Park Slope apartment, trying to figure out how to make her groceries last another week.

Two years later, they all work at New York City Health + Hospitals’ Bay Ridge testing site, along with 32 other staff members — checking in patients, swabbing noses, processing the results and making sure the whole operation runs smoothly. They’ve worked through surges, slow periods, personal milestones and devastating losses. Together, they’ve conducted more than 150,000 tests since the site opened in May 2020.

As they move toward a third year on the frontlines, these veteran COVID testers are reflecting on how the pandemic uprooted their lives and brought them together. Gothamist visited the longstanding site to hear about what they’ve learned and their hopes for the future.

'Organized chaos'

From the outside, this brick-and-mortar testing site doesn’t look like much. It’s on the ground floor of a parking garage — its windows blacked out and checkered with a patchwork of printer-paper signs. From the inside, it’s very clearly the hollowed-out husk of a bank: a handful of patients check for PCR tests in at tellers’ kiosks.

The rest of the space, though, is totally transformed.

With its blacked out windows and minimal signage, New York City Health + Hospitals’s Bay Ridge COVID testing site is nondescript from the outside.

Enormous blue air purifiers sit in the corners of temporary partitions set up to make private testing cubicles. Boxes of rapid tests and vaccine swag bags are piled to the ceiling on plastic folding tables. The adjoining space, where workers administer and process rapid tests, used to be a Hallmark store, Generoso said, operations manager at the site.

She would know. Born and raised in nearby Bensonhurst, she said she is familiar with the neighborhood and jumped at the opportunity to serve her community as a health care worker.

“I took [the job] because I wanted to be part of history,” she said. “And I wanted to do something for New York.”

Maria Generoso, operations lead at the testing site, poses in front of a poster. Workers at the testing site have named the character on the poster “Tom.” They dress him up for different holidays.

The surrounding area has been hit hard by the pandemic. Its total COVID case rate is more than double the citywide rate. All told, one in every three residents of the Bay Ridge and Fort Hamilton neighborhoods has tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began, according to city data.

At 9 a.m. on a sunny Thursday morning in February, just a half-dozen people are lined up outside waiting to get tested. Generoso said it wasn’t always this way: “We had lines wrapped around all the way down to Fort Hamilton.”

At one point, according to city data, the testing site was doing more than 650 swabs per day. Now, it’s more like 150 per day.

The last surge was a taxing time for Generoso’s staff, she added She was checking in on them constantly, making sure they took bathroom breaks and had time to eat lunch.

“I thrive on the craziness,” she said. “It was an organized chaos.”

Jen Lovallo, a nurse practitioner who’s been working at the site since its opening in May 2020, remembers those days well. She says she’d sometimes personally see as many as 150 patients a day — more patients than she’d encounter in a week at her old job at a community health clinic. The heavy workload took its toll on her.

“You keep going, you keep going, and then it’s over, and you end up waking up at 3 o’clock in the morning and asking your dogs about their symptoms,” she said.

You end up waking up at 3 o’clock in the morning and asking your dogs about their symptoms.
Jen Lovallo

At the same time, Lovallo’s long tenure has allowed her to connect with her regulars, including some who were hesitant to get vaccinated against COVID-19. One patient, a retired police officer in his 80s, was adamantly opposed to getting the vaccine, Lovallo said. Instead, he came in for weekly tests before going to visit his grandchildren.

Every week, Lovallo would talk to him about the vaccine, trying to allay a few more fears and share a few more talking points. Finally, she said, he came in and told her he was getting the shot the next day.

Jen Lovallo has been working at the Bay Ridge testing site since it first opened in May 2020.

“There's not a lot of positives that you necessarily see in this setting,” she said, her eyes filling with tears. “So it's those moments that get you.”

Crafts, cats and COVID stress

Still, Lovallo and her longest serving colleagues are feeling the strain of nearly two years on the pandemic’s frontlines. She has reduced her hours to part time and is planning to take some time off from the health care field once this testing site shuts down. In the meantime, she recharges by spending time with her three dogs and cooking big trays of pasta for the community fridge in her neighborhood.

Generoso, too, said she relies on her cat Shadow and her new kitten, Leah. Morning workouts also help her manage stress, she said.

Many staffers have been affected by COVID personally. Samantha Tavarez, who works the front desk at the testing site, has gotten sick twice and lost multiple loved ones to the coronavirus. She also bears the brunt of clients’ frustrations during busy periods. She said she endured shouting and even threats from patients during the omicron peak, when it could take hours to get through the testing line.

She said her own losses help her empathize with even aggressive patients.

Before she joined the Bay Ridge testing site, Samantha Tavarez worked for 311, where she helped New Yorkers with the logistics of COVID testing and isolation.

“I know where they're coming from,” she said. “I know what it's like to lose a family member. I know what it's like to have COVID, or to have someone that's high-risk that has COVID, and you just want to make sure that everybody stays safe and is okay.”

Most of all, testing site staff said they rely on each other.

“Our coworkers are here to blow off steam with us,” Tavarez said. “They’re here to help us. They’re here to tell us, ‘It’s OK.’”

A handmade sign decorates the lab where workers process rapid tests.

Evidence of those bonds is apparent all over the testing site: the walls and temporary partitions are covered in handmade signs, cat stickers and holiday decorations. A poster of a person wearing PPE has been doctored with glittery hearts and a shiny red mustache for Valentine’s day.

“We call him Tom,” Generoso said, laughing. He dressed up for Christmas, too.

A calling, and call to action

For some early-career staffers, the pandemic is the only health care setting they’ve ever known. Heidi Poulakos, a registered nurse who administers tests to patients at the Bay Ridge site, graduated from nursing school in the spring of 2020. She remembers the director of her nursing program urging students over Zoom to study as hard as they could.

“‘The city needs you, so you better pass,’” Poulakos recalls the director saying. She passed her licensure examination on the first try.

She has been working at the testing site ever since, decked out in full PPE, plus her own custom jacket and cap embroidered with her name. It’s grueling, hot, difficult work — but Poulakos said it energizes her. For her, nursing is a calling.

“I like it when we're busy,” she said. “I get pumped up.”

Workers have spruced up the NYC Health + Hospitals signage with cat stickers.

Not long after Gothamist visited the testing site, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced she was lifting the statewide mask mandate in businesses and schools, though it remains for public transit and health care settings. Mayor Eric Adams has followed suit, announcing that indoor vaccine requirements for patrons and school mask mandates will end as soon as this week, provided that COVID cases continue to decline. Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has relaxed its guidance for low-risk areas, contending that when hospitalizations are low, testing and vaccination are enough to keep the pandemic under control.

Poulakos, Lovallo and the other staffers urged New Yorkers to keep masking, testing and getting vaccinated, regardless of what’s technically required.

“Keep in mind that you’ve got thousands and thousands of vulnerable neighbors and every kid under five,” Lovallo said. “Just make sure you're still taking precautions to protect them, even though we are all beyond over COVID restrictions.”

“Don’t be stubborn,” Poulakos said, tapping her mask. “Just wear this.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled Maria Generoso’s last name. It has been updated and we regret the error.