It is not yet known if the new variant circulating around NYC is more contagious, deadly, or if it impacts the vaccine.
JIM DOLAN: This is New York in the COVID-ravaged spring of 2020. Empty streets, empty clubs, abandoned office buildings and deserted restaurants, empty pews in the church, empty seats on the train. In a city of crowds, the people who made up the crowds suddenly scared to death of them.
- All these patients here sitting out in the hallways.
- New York state has more than 66,000 cases.
- It's been like a war zone, a medical war zone.
- The death toll set another grim record for the pandemic in New York.
- It almost seems as though it's never stopping, you know? People just keep coming and coming and coming, and there's just no space to put them.
JIM DOLAN: The novel coronavirus was just starting to bare its teeth as winter turned to spring. People were dying at an alarming rate. But the real wave of anguish and grief that would soon overwhelm the city was just starting.
- There are more than 1,800 new positive coronavirus cases in New York City.
- New York state adding nearly 3,000 positive cases today. The death toll now up to 38.
JIM DOLAN: The numbers were growing, and they were frightening.
- Just overnight, 253 more New Yorkers died from this virus.
JIM DOLAN: We're learning now a whole new vocabulary, and at its center, the term social distancing, the idea that the more space you keep between you and other people, the lower your chance of contracting the virus. The governor mandated social distance with the most aggressive--
ANDREW CUOMO: No more than 50% of the workforce can report for work outside of the home.
JIM DOLAN: --and restrictive--
ANDREW CUOMO: 75% of the workforce must stay at home.
JIM DOLAN: --lockdown in American history.
Every day this week, the governor has slowly but dramatically tightened social and work restrictions on New Yorkers. Today, in his words, he closed the valve. He ordered all nonessential public and private employees work from home or don't work at all. He even gave it a catchy title.
ANDREW CUOMO: New York State on PAUSE. This is the most drastic action we can take. This is not life as usual. Accept it and deal with it.
JIM DOLAN: Essential service workers like police and fire were, of course, exempt, but so were liquor stores and medical marijuana dispensaries. Grocery stores and pharmacies would remain open, but restaurants could open only for delivery and takeout. There was no one more essential, no one more exposed to the danger the coronavirus posed than hospital workers.
- All the patients you see, they all have COVID. And this is only one of the several rooms.
- Our biggest concern is just the sheer amount of people that are coming in, and we are starting to get scared that we will be running out of beds very soon.
- Today is kind of getting worse and worse. We had to get a refrigerated truck to store the bodies.
- I've never felt so physically and emotionally burdened in my life.
JIM DOLAN: Hospital workers were doing 12, sometimes 18-hour shifts, seven-day weeks. The sick kept coming.
- The people who are coming in are so much more ill and so much more critically ill with shortness of breath and respiratory failure. And so what we're seeing is more and more ICU-type patients.
JIM DOLAN: And there was precious little doctors could do. They had patients, a torrent of desperately, gravely ill patients with a virus for which there was no treatment, no agreed-upon medical protocol that did much good. And they were watching patients die in numbers few had ever seen anywhere.
- A week that started with 1,000 deaths in New York state has ended with 3,000.
JIM DOLAN: The blistering fatigue most doctors and nurses could handle. The emotional toll of helplessly watching so many people die hour after hour each day was much harder. The phone calls to the family members the most wrenching part of a traumatizing day.
- Telling someone that their family member may not make it, it really does-- it takes a lot.
- When I'm coming home, I can take a deep breath, and I can fill my lungs. And then all I want to do is cry because I don't know what else to do with the emotion anymore.
- The number of new deaths reported today is about the same as it was yesterday.
- I wish we can do more, but COVID is a nightmare. And I don't know. I just can't wait for it to be over. I have many days where I walk home and I'm crying. I'm sobbing because it's like what else can I do to make this better?
- 731 people died in the last 24 hours.
- And it really does look like a scene from a war movie up there.
- 799 New Yorkers died in the last 24 hours.
- We kept saying let's just make it to lunch. And then once we get to lunch, let's just make it to dinner.
JIM DOLAN: And yet even in such dark times, there were stories, dramatic stories of triumph and joy. 33-year-old Warnell Vega, a father of a young girl, suffered from a life-threatening COVID-related blood-clotting disorder. But he recovered and was released.
WARNELL VEGA: One of the things I'm looking forward to doing first is having a good night's sleep. It's been a while.
JIM DOLAN: And Lisa Amoretti's husband was on a ventilator for 17 days. She wondered if they would even see their 30th wedding anniversary.
LISA AMORETTI: I was honestly getting ready to do a funeral. You know, I was getting ready to have a funeral, just me and the kids, no one there. And that's what my thought process was, and I just couldn't function at that point.
- Usually under not these circumstances we were able to be there with him, hold his hand, make sure-- you know, be with him through this. But we couldn't talk to him, and it was really difficult.
JIM DOLAN: But Victor got better and came off the ventilator, a joyous triumph in the midst of so much pain.
LISA AMORETTI: There is hope. There is truly, truly hope and prayers, tons of prayers.
JIM DOLAN: Most patients came to hospitals already critically ill in the back of an ambulance, but many the medics were dispatched to transport were dead before the ambulance even arrived.
AARON MENDEL: Monday was three before I had a live patient.
It's weighing on me.
- The scariest thing I've ever seen. It's incredibly viral. It's incredibly contagious. And we just can't keep up.
JIM DOLAN: "Eyewitness News" reporter Josh Einiger spoke to one medic who had seen the worst of it.
JOSH EINIGER: Public officials are now sounding increasingly optimistic about maybe relaxing some restrictions. But to Aaron Mendel it all seems so far
AARON MENDEL: What annoys me most, hearing people get excited about a temporary dip in numbers. We know what we're all seeing, and we hear what's happening on the radio.
- Says she's chilled and shaking.
JOSH EINIGER: That radio drones on. The sick keep dying. But the city's medics won't give up--
- You guys are the heroes.
JOSH EINIGER: --until it finally stops.
- Thank you.
AARON MENDEL: We're needed out there. It's not going away until we're done with this mission, and this is a war we're fighting.
- You're going to go in tomorrow, and you're going to do the best that you can for every patient that you can. And you are going to be tired, and you are going to be sad, and you're going to be mentally and physically strained.
ANDREW CUOMO: You cannot stop it.
JIM DOLAN: To be sure, it seemed like that as the death toll rose by the hour.
- Every two minutes, another New Yorker dies at the hands of COVID-19.
JIM DOLAN: As the hospitals filled and the numbers crested, the models used by the governor to project need suggested the state would need twice as many hospital beds as it had. The governor persuaded the Trump administration to build several emergency mobile hospitals, including one with 2,500 beds at the Jacob Javits Center on the West Side, and a smaller one at the US Tennis Center in Flushing, and just in case--
- It is a symbol of American might and American spirit. The United States naval ship Comfort cruising into New York Harbor.
JIM DOLAN: The mobile hospitals came equipped with their own ventilators, the difference for many COVID patients between life and death. But New York hospitals were not as well equipped, and the governor needed ventilators for them as well. The governor wanted 30,000 ventilators from the federal stockpile. The president offered 400.
ANDREW CUOMO: What am I going to do with 400 ventilators when I need 30,000? You pick the 26,000 people who are going to die because you only sent 400 ventilators.
BILL DE BLASIO: If we don't get more ventilators in the next 10 days, people will die who don't have to die. It's as simple as that.
JIM DOLAN: It was a similar story with the dangerous shortage of Personal Protective Equipment, PPE, another term from the new COVID lexicon. Hospitals and nursing homes were desperate for masks and gloves.
- We are reusing our N95s for days and sometimes weeks at a time. And shoe coverings are nowhere to be found.
JIM DOLAN: And they were there exposed constantly to a virus that was killing hundreds every day and was spread by close contact. Look at the process of intubating a patient.
- We are face to face with these patients who are breathing rapidly, coughing. That requires us to be directly over the face of the patient.
JIM DOLAN: PPE would haunt the hospital industry through much of the coronavirus crisis, the victim of a system that just wasn't capable of producing the vast amount of protective gear hospitals in New York would require as they became overwhelmed. At New York Presbyterian Hospital, doctors and nurses were going through 40,000 masks a day, 10 times the normal number. It was just one way the health-care system was falling desperately behind.
- A makeshift morgue has now been set up on the east side of Manhattan i case the city's other morgues become overwhelmed by this pandemic.
JIM DOLAN: The city would set up temporary morgues all over the five boroughs to handle the sudden and overwhelming number of COVID-related deaths. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner was faced with hundreds more bodies every day than they had capacity for, and for a time is seemed some might have to be buried temporarily in a potter's field on Hart Island. The mobile refrigerated units stored some bodies until the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner could process them, but not all.
- You go from one funeral home to another funeral home to another funeral home. Everybody's booked. You can't find a place to have a burial because everybody's booked.
JIM DOLAN: The surging numbers of dead in New York and New Jersey was drowning the funeral service business as well.
DORIS AMEN: Heartbreaking for me to do this.
JIM DOLAN: Doris Amen runs a funeral home in Park Slope.
DORIS AMEN: The cemeteries are booking weeks in advance now. And some crematories, we're not going to get into them until May.
- You can't have a decent service. People-- you have to do a Zoom where you look into a TV, and it's no human connection.
JIM DOLAN: Some funeral homes would buckle beneath the sheer number of bodies they were suddenly asked to process. So many systems were buckling. The lockdown put millions of people out of work, people living paycheck to paycheck when the paychecks stopped. For them, New York on PAUSE meant though they had always worked, always paid their bills, they might not be able to put food on the table. The coronavirus was causing hunger in New York.
- At a food pantry in Queens tonight, the line extended for half a mile.
JIM DOLAN: Are you worried about running out of food?
JIM DOLAN: When "Eyewitness to a Pandemic" continues.