Is COVID-19 the next 9/11 health crisis?

Is COVID-19 the next 9/11 health crisis?
© Getty Images

It was a made for TV moment when TV host John Stewart, seated at a House Judiciary Committee hearing table looked at the Judiciary Committee Chairman and four subcommittee members present for testimony from 9/11 first responders and said, “It’s an embarrassment to the country and a stain on the institution and you should be ashamed of yourselves…”

Why was he there? Congress needed to pass, for the third time, funding for the  9/11 James Zadroga Health Care and Compensation Act, which would sustain the funding and support necessary for 9/11 first responders health care.  

During the September 11 terrorist attacks, 417 first responders lost their lives and the aftermath though was far worse.  Over 10,000 first responders started to come down with mysterious illnesses and cancers. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Meanwhile, the government denied — but later acknowledged — these health issues were related to the 9/11 attacks and resulting exposure. After the evidence mounted, a debate ensued over whether those health issues warranted a government response, with some in Congress saying it was an “overreach”.  Finally, in 2010, as the 9/11 responder death and disability roles soared, Congress passed the 9/11 James Zadroga Health and Compensation Act, with a finite funding and time window for claims. 

As time marched on, the 9/11 related illnesses have actually increased as hidden exposure related symptoms turned into full blown diseases, which to date have taken more 9/11 responders lives than the attacks did. Why did the 9/11 responders have to suffer through this disbelief and dismay of Congress?  

When the 9/11 attacks occurred, the initial effects were not felt as widespread as the current COVID-19 crisis, particularly in the area of law enforcement officers' health. While it took our government 10 years to officially recognize the health effects from 9/11, the current coronavirus crisis is occurring in real time and its immediate impacts are clear. 

At its peak, nearly 20 percent of the New York City Police Department’s (NYPD) uniformed workforce was out sick during this pandemic COVID-19 crisis. So far, the COVID-19 toll has taken 35 members of the NYPD, compared to the 23 officers lost on 9/11.

The NYPD isn’t alone — law enforcement agencies around the nation are being significantly impacted by COVID-19 health effects. Officers are being thrust into the target zone of an external threat whose long term impacts are unknown. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Other law enforcement agencies — like the U.S. Marshals Service and the Secret Service — are not immune to the threat of coronavirus either. 

The developing coronavirus health crisis and those related to 9/11 are similar in that there’s uncertainty about what may unravel in the future in terms of health complications. As happened to 9/11 responders in the years following the attacks, there could be skepticism or even denial over coronavirus-related health complications in the future. 

Using that historical context as a lesson, pre-emptive planning is paramount to longer term prevention.  As we saw, the guidance on symptoms changed; the CDC initially described COVID-19 symptoms with the relatively common symptoms of fever, cough and muscle pain, but warnings over what to look out for evolved, adding new symptoms to the list daily.

Outside of the symptoms, there is also a health threat from so-called “asymptomatic people.” If an “asymptomatic” civilian contacts a law enforcement officer, it could devastate an entire agency. This ever changing medical landscape is similar to what 9/11 responders faced — a new health threat whose collateral damage on first responders is unknown and may grow. 

To combat this, the federal government must stop its denial game and work to address the immediate needs to further protect first responders. If the CDC recommends 14 days of self-quarantine from exposure, then Congress should mandate sick leave, for as long as is necessary to allow complete recovery from a diagnosis. The issue Congress needs to address is to eliminate the mountain of medical evidence faced by 9/11 responders to document their illnesses. COVID-19 and its related medical complications should immediately be recognized and accepted as a “on the job” injury for COVID-19 first responders.  

To help this process, Congress should also reform current programs designed to support first responders like the Public Safety Officers Benefit Act (PSOB) and federal Workers Compensation Programs, which handle disability and death benefits for law enforcement officers. They need to ensure that a “presumption” of line of duty illness is clearly incorporated into these important respective programs.  This would negate the need to further burden a COVID-19 first responder now or down the road with the need for additional medical evidence.  

Lastly, as with 9/11 illnesses, a tracking mechanism needs to be in place to identify when and how law enforcement officers are exposed, what the result is and how, if possible, the illnesses could have been prevented.    

Donald J. Mihalek is the executive vice president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA) Foundation and the Secret Service Agency President for FLEOA.