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The Epicenter


The skies are leaden, a wintry mix falling. All in keeping with the mood of Queens.

Inside Elmhurst Hospital, Vicenta Flores is on a ventilator, unconscious and alone. Visitors are not allowed, but many in her family’s small apartment in Corona are too sick to see her anyway, including two grandchildren sharing a nebulizer meant for asthma. Rosa Lema, Vicenta’s daughter, is so ill that she has gotten tested for the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, the entertainer Yimel Alvarado remains sedated and on a ventilator in her clear plastic cocoon. With the help of an English-speaking member of the Familia Alvarado, her sister Olivia has been calling twice a day to check on Yimel, whose own test result has finally come in: positive.

Covid cases have all but overtaken the emergency department. Just weeks ago, the prevailing wisdom held that the hospital’s four negative-pressure isolation rooms could handle whatever infectious cases came in. The thought now seems absurd.

For Dr. Stuart Kessler, the emergency department’s director, the days are one protracted crisis under fluorescent lights. A Queens native who grew up in Bayside, seven miles to the east, he has hound-dog eyes and a seen-it-all air earned from decades as an emergency-medicine physician in big-city hospitals.

But he has never seen any disease progress like this virus, and he is urging peers around the country to reject conventional thought and prepare for something entirely unfamiliar. His words of caution do not seem to register. If you haven’t lived through it, he decides, you cannot understand it.

Outside the hospital, gunmetal barricades guide a trail of rain-battered people toward a testing site in a tent near the emergency department entrance. Bent beneath umbrellas, hunched against the cold, they form a daily column of dread.

Francisco Moya, the local councilman, drives past the line after delivering 1,000 face masks to the hospital where he was born 46 years ago and once worked as an administrator. The son of Ecuadorean immigrants who settled in Corona, he is a familiar, bearded presence around here, having also served as a community organizer and state assemblyman.

He is heart-stricken and angered by the sight of so many people, many of them uninsured immigrants, huddled in desperation. It seems like a scene from some war-torn country, not his own.

As the city’s confirmed cases double about every week, Mr. Moya is among those sounding the alarm. On social media and in calls to City Hall, he asserts that Elmhurst Hospital is over capacity and in dire need of doctors, nurses, ventilators and personal protective equipment.

It is true: Many in Queens are in short supply of nearly everything, save despair. But dozens of local organizations are working to fill the void.

A few blocks from Elmhurst Hospital, a young imam from Bangladesh is converting his mosque, An-Noor Cultural Center, into a makeshift storehouse; the prayer room’s carpet will soon be covered with donated halal food. With the wizardry of his 13-year-old son, he is also posting daily videos on social media to keep his isolated congregants informed.

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