When Orlando first landed in New York in January, the 18-year-old dreamed of a life of independence and joining the heroic firefighters of the FDNY. He had completed high school in Silicon Valley last year through a special education plan and trained in handling hazardous materials. Now, he was eager to start working and find his way in the world.
Orlando had no idea that within a few months, he would be living in a shelter for homeless youth and become one of the more than 100,000 New York City residents infected with the brutal coronavirus.
“He said it scared him – there was so much talk about coronavirus, he thought he was going to die,” said his aunt in California, Yesenia Cruz, speaking in Spanish. “I told him to take very good care of himself and do everything they told him in the hospital.”
At first, Orlando had been worried to tell family members back in California that he had contracted the virus. But he decided to share his story publicly as a warning to others, he told a reporter, especially other teens who may feel invincible. The Imprint is identifying Orlando by his middle name to respect his request for privacy.
“This virus is coming in strong,” he said with the blunt sincerity of youth, capturing the situation in a city where more than 11,000 have died of presumed COVID-19 and more than 30,000 have been hospitalized. “It could kill you, or make you go on a breathing machine.”
Well before the infection, things had started off OK for Orlando.
When he first arrived in New York with his big-city dream, he stayed with a cousin. His first East Coast winter proved fairly mild. That made the transition a little kinder on someone who spent his early years in Mexico with his grandmother, before joining his mother in San Jose, California.
But his luck ran out quickly.
Not wanting to crowd his cousin’s family in their Queens apartment for too long, Orlando started looking for somewhere else to go. His cousin told him about a Midtown crisis shelter for homeless youth where he could find refuge. After a few weeks there, Orlando moved into the smaller Safe Haven crisis shelter in Harlem in February.
Next came another blow, he said, when he found out that his visa – which he received after witnessing domestic violence against his mother at a young age – wouldn’t qualify him to work as a firefighter. He found a lawyer to help him apply for U.S. residency, but the lawyer stopped taking new cases as the city ground to a halt amid the pandemic.
Then things went from bad to worse.
On March 21, Orlando woke up with a headache and chills he couldn’t shake. Staff at Safe Haven, run by the nonprofit Sheltering Arms, had been warning the 20 residents to wash their hands often and practice social distancing. Still, Orlando figured if he caught the virus, it wouldn’t be much different from the flu.
“I was saying that coronavirus is not gonna take me down, and the next thing you know I’m in the hospital getting my results,” he recalled. “The coronavirus said, ‘Let me give you a taste.’”
Shelter staff at Safe Haven initially sent Orlando to the nearby Harlem Hospital, where a nurse recently told WBUR radio she had triple the normal number of patients, some of whom were crammed into rooms with up to four other patients. Others lay on stretchers in hallways for days, she said.
Medical staff at the hospital diagnosed Orlando with a headache and discharged him back to Safe Haven, said Leonor Walcott, director of youth services for Safe Haven and other Sheltering Arms facilities.
But the teen said he still felt dizzy and cold. Shelter staff were increasingly concerned he had coronavirus, and there were no medical personnel available on site.
“It was definitely important for us to know if he had a diagnosis or not because he was in congregate care,” Walcott said.
The next day staff called 911 and “strongly advocated, with a lot of pushback” that he be reassessed by emergency medical services, who have been swamped with more medical calls than on 9/11. This time, first responders took Orlando to Mount Sinai Hospital, which now faces a cluster of tents in Central Park set up to handle additional COVID-19 patients. Hospital staff tested Orlando for coronavirus. The result was positive.
Mount Sinai held him overnight to make sure he didn’t get worse. In the meantime, Safe Haven staff rushed to move residents around and prepare a room at the shelter where he could hole up alone and quarantine when he got back. Walcott described efforts to care for Orlando – and to protect other residents and staff from becoming infected – as a challenge unlike any she had faced in her six years with the agency.
With youth and health on his side, his condition was determined to be stable, and he was released back to Safe Haven the next day, on March 23.
For the next 12 days, Orlando’s cellphone became his lifeline. Staff checked in with him multiple times a day, reminding him when to take fever-reducing medicine, and using Whatsapp video calls to ensure he wasn’t downplaying the severity of his symptoms. He let them know when he needed to use the bathroom so they could check in to make sure he didn’t lose his balance while walking the few steps outside his door.
Orlando’s phone helped ease his sense of isolation too. In the room where he was quarantined, he passed the time by streaming music videos and Mexican television shows. When he looked out the window, sometimes he saw his friends playing on the basketball court outside.
“I was in depression, I was sad because I wanted to be with my buddies, with the staff,” Orlando said. “I really get along with them, and I made jokes when I was in quarantine through the phone and video chat.”
The staff often passed their phones to other residents so they could chat with Orlando and lift his spirits.
“They tried to create some type of normality for him even though he could not leave his room, which was really difficult for him and for us,” Walcott said. “The phone was truly a blessing to be able to monitor him physically and see that he was OK.”
Meanwhile, outside the four walls of his room, life at Safe Haven had changed too. Dinner was divided into 30-minute shifts to allow residents to keep more space between themselves. Check-ins with counselors and case managers who are now working remotely have become phone calls. Nightly community meetings have been canceled.
So far, the precautions appear to be working. The agency said no other residents at Safe Haven have displayed symptoms of the virus; one staff member with a cough was sent home as a safety measure. Across the other Sheltering Arms youth shelters, three other young people have been quarantined after experiencing coronavirus-like symptoms, including losing their sense of smell and taste.
Orlando was spared that unfortunate side effect, and in time he rebounded. Finally, after he had gone three days without displaying any symptoms, following guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he was able to leave his quarantine room behind. Safe Haven staff surprised him with a small “welcome back” celebration.
“I felt really special,” Orlando said. “I wasn’t expecting them to give me cake!”
A social worker has also been working with Orlando to figure out a safe long-term living situation. The maximum stay at Safe Haven is four months, though most youth stay only about two. Orlando and the social worker decided the best move for him is to return to California. While his mom told him he won’t be able to live with her, his uncles nearby have said he can stay with them.
Many of his new friends at Safe Haven don’t have the same ability to safely reunify with their families. And for young people searching for stable footing, the city is often a harsh environment – even without a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic surging through the streets.
“The virus made me realize I need to go back with family at this moment – I have a good connection with them,” Orlando said. “It’s horrible to be in a room where you can’t be next to your family members, and I don’t want them to go through the same experience I went through.”
Megan Conn can be reached at [email protected]