October 24, 2020

The New York Outbreak and its Personal Toll

Patrick Cornbill’88 writes about his experience with FEMA’s New York State pandemic response team during the first three months of the Covid pandemic.
  • Patrick Cornbill talks to media after hurricanes hit the Virgin Islands in 2017.
    WNBC News

I was due to go on a long-planned vacation to Barbados starting March 18th, the day after New York City announced we were “shutting down.” The prospect of winding up “stranded” in Barbados to ride out the pandemic didn’t sound so bad to me, but my work beckoned. I was being groomed for a high-level leadership position in federal disaster field operations. During the peak of the New York City Covid outbreak, as part of my on-the-job training, I was asked to join FEMA’s New York State pandemic response team as deputy branch director for New York City at the city’s Emergency Operations Center.

We coordinated the massive temporary field hospital at the Javits Convention Center in Manhattan, brought in the U.S.N.S. Comfort hospital ship, supplied personal protective equipment for distribution to hospitals and nursing homes, and assigned the Department of Defense to supply doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel.

I was asked to focus on the fatality management side. The mortuary system was, I would argue, more overwhelmed than the medical system. Hospital morgues were underequipped to handle the volume of decedents, and the medical examiner’s office usually only handles cases requiring investigations. Funeral homes were overwhelmed as were the cemeteries and crematoria.

In a typical three-month period, the mortuary supply chain would handle about 10,000 bodies. In this three-month period, they had 30,000. At one point the number was over 1,000 per day, and no one knew where it would top off.

We set up a temporary disaster morgue in an abandoned warehouse on a pier—the Javits Center field hospital’s dark counterpart.

The city and state had mass fatality plans with thresholds that would trigger temporary internments on public lands in marked shallow burials. My job was to talk them out of that. In the end all it took was for Mayor de Blasio to read about “mass graves” on the front page of the New York Post, and it all came to a crashing stop. The city settled on electric-powered refrigerated shipping containers near an electrical substation with back-up generators and fuel just in case.

By May, the numbers of Covid cases and deaths in New York had begun falling sharply. The temporary hospitals devolved into supplying medical staff and equipment to city hospitals, and fatality management seemed under control.

The stressful days of the response were over, but they had taken their toll. Or perhaps it was just a ticking clock whose pre-set alarm had gone off—either way, I was paid a little visit by the heart attack fairy one day on a park bench across from the Emergency Operations Center.

I was taken away in an ambulance. The worst days of Covid in the city’s hospitals were over, but still absolutely no visitors were allowed. My colleagues who followed the ambulance were not allowed entry into the hospital.

The next morning, following surgery, I was lying flat on my back with more tubes and wires sticking out of me than the back of my TV. A nurse fetched my cell phone and handed it to me in my bed. There was a flow of texts saying: “Get well,” “So sorry to hear this,” “What terrible news,” and a few others saying “Great news,” Glad to hear it,” “You deserve this, you’ve been working toward this for years.” Well go drop dead yourself you bunch of jerks, I thought. Unbeknownst to me, I had gotten the promotion I was training for, and I was the last to know.

When I was wheeled into the ambulance, that would be the last time I laid eyes on a fellow “Femite” through the end of summer. I was high-risk for having been in a hospital at the end of the pandemic’s surge. I was banned from showing my face at any federal facility or coming into contact with any federal employees.

At the end of June, I came down with a high fever, body aches, and other ominous symptoms. I thought it might have been Covid, but it was eventually diagnosed as Lyme disease. Federal workplace rules prohibit people with Covid-like symptoms from entering federal facilities, so I went back into medical leave hiding. Now, the regional FEMA office is mostly working remotely. Even our Response Coordination Center monitoring the hurricanes is largely done remotely.

At the time of this writing, I am camping on my property in Upstate New York where I monitor the storms and conference calls with my new solar panel and cell signal booster that allow me to work from the woods until I get a deployment order—then it’s off the bench and back in the game. Wish me luck.


Adapted from Patrick Cornbill’s upcoming book Serious as a Pandemic, sequel to Serious as a Heart Attack: A Comedic Memoir about Dropping Dead, available on Amazon under the pseudonym Jeffrey Hornbull.

Read more stories about alumni working “In the Trenches in the Time of Covid”.


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