Belinda Ellis, an emergency room nurse in Queens. “I’ve worked in Iraq in the height of the war,” she said. “This was worse.”Credit…Desiree Rios for The New York Times
Belinda Ellis had been a nurse for 40 years, and she thought she’d seen it all. She had worked in hospitals in the Philippines, where she was born and got her degree. She was a nurse in Saudi Arabia and then at a military hospital on the border of Iraq when Saddam Hussein came into power.
But when the first wave of the pandemic battered New York City last spring, she still wasn’t prepared. Nor could she have foreseen the immense toll the coronavirus would take on her Filipino colleagues.
As devastating as Covid-19 was in those early months, a number of studies now reveal just how hard the virus hit Filipino health care workers. Of all the nurses who died from the virus nationwide, one study found, close to a third of them were Filipino.
According to an analysis by ProPublica, in the New York City area alone, at least 30 Filipino health care workers had died from the virus by June.
Many of them fell sick, including Erwin Lambrento, a tenacious night shift nurse from the outskirts of Manila who died of the virus in early May. Pictures of him still hang throughout Elmhurst Hospital Center, where Ms. Ellis works.
“His presence is still all over,” she said. “If I think about it, I’ll get emotional. It’s still very fresh.”
According to a survey published in September by National Nurses United, the largest nurses’ union in the United States, 67 Filipino nurses have died of Covid-19. That figure, which was pulled from public obituaries, is around a third of the total registered nurses who have died nationwide, though Filipinos make up only 4 percent of those nurses overall.
“It’s really heartbreaking,” said Zenei Cortez, president of National Nurses United and a nurse from the Philippines herself. Ms. Cortez fears that the true toll is worse. “The numbers we are producing are all underreported, I’m sure of that.”
Now another wave of the virus has arrived. The infection rate in New York City has risen in recent weeks, and hospitalizations are at alarming levels; more than 450 New Yorkers have died of Covid since the beginning of 2021. And many Filipino nurses fear their hospitals could again be crushed under caseloads that recall the harrowing months of March and April.
Filipino nurses have a long history of working in New York City hospitals, dating at least to the immigration reforms in the 1960s, which broadened the categories of foreign workers who could apply for a United States visa.
In the Philippines, nursing schools have taught an American curriculum since as early as 1907, granting degrees to English-speaking nurses who could slot easily into American hospitals. They quickly became invaluable in the 1980s as a solution to staffing shortages exacerbated by the AIDS epidemic. It was in 1986 that Ms. Ellis was recruited by Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, where she was quickly deployed to the bedsides of patients with H.I.V.
San Francisco and New York were especially welcoming to migrant nurses, according to Leo-Felix Jurado, a professor of nursing at William Paterson University in New Jersey who wrote his dissertation on the importation of Filipino nurses into American hospitals.
Mr. Jurado, who is now 55, was recruited in 1988 by JFK Medical Center in Edison, N.J. He recalls that visiting the employment fairs held in Manila hotels felt like an afternoon of barhopping. Recruiters jostled to make hires, sweetening work visas to the United States with signing bonuses and promises of free housing, Mr. Jurado said.
“It was very alluring to come as a result of that,” he added.
Over time, Filipino-American nurses wove themselves into the fabric of New York City hospitals. They took jobs in acute bedside care in hospitals battered by AIDS, and they found housing in Elmhurst and Woodside in Queens, an area now known as Little Manila.
These neighborhoods were slammed last year by the pandemic. In June, a community group painted a mural in Woodside to fallen Filipino workers. It reads “Mabuhay,” which in Tagalog means “May you live.”
The mural honors Lemuel Sison, a medical technician at Long Island University Hospital. It honors Rustico Pasig, who was infected while working at a nursing home in Rego Park and died at the age of 66.
And it honors Romeo Agtarap, a former nurse coordinator at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital who left retirement to care for patients with Covid-19. Mr. Agtarap, who was 63, arrived in New York City in 1984. At work, he was known for a deft ability to place an IV and for his easygoing nature, which earned him many friends throughout decades in the profession.
It also earned him his first date with Joy Constantino, a cardiac nurse who arrived from the Philippines in 1985, when he let slip to friends that he was interested in her. The two were married in 1988.
In 2019, Mr. Agtarap stepped down from his managerial role to work part time, intending to soon retire completely. Mr. Agtarap had not even told his wife that he’d been seeing Covid patients. “He didn’t think I would allow it,” Joy Agtarap said.
The two were hospitalized with the virus in early April, but only Ms. Agtarap responded to treatment. Mr. Agtarap’s condition steadily worsened, and he died of the virus on April 24.
Like Romeo and Joy Agtarap, Filipinos are overrepresented in the types of health care professions that require close contact with patients, such as in emergency rooms and nursing homes — a risk heightened by Filipinos’ high rates of hypertension, asthma, obesity and diabetes. “Everything has been pointing to the risk for Filipino health care workers,” said Ninez Ponce, a researcher at U.C.L.A.’s Fielding School of Public Health who studies health disparities.
In the spring, many Filipino nurses went weeks without sleeping at home, said Laarni Florencio, a board member of the Philippine Nurses Association of New York. Ms. Florencio has been running mental health Zoom calls for the group’s members.
“Our hospitals look like battlegrounds,” Ms. Florencio said. “We were hearing stories about how depressed the nurses feel, about how they were crying at work. That emotional toll for health care providers is tough. We’re supposed to be healers.”
Belinda Ellis, who is now 65, is still shaken by the memory of Elmhurst Hospital in March and April. At that time, she was assigned to the hospital’s newly designated Covid-19 unit.
“I’ve worked in Iraq at the height of a war,” recalled Ms. Ellis, whose first posting as a travel nurse took her to a military hospital on the border of the Kurdistan region in 1979. “This was worse.”
There is some hope among the nurses that the winter surge won’t be as deadly as the wave that arrived in the spring. Many say their hospitals are better prepared this time: They know how and when to use ventilators, for example, and Ms. Ellis pointed out that Elmhurst now sits on vastly replenished stocks of protective masks and gowns.
In addition, health care workers have priority in receiving the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, which have been shown to be highly effective.
Ms. Ellis just received her second shot on Tuesday.
But it will be weeks before New York City’s hospital workers are fully immunized. In the meantime, nurses in several hospitals here have warned about a lack of protective gear, and hospitals throughout the city are reviving some of the coronavirus units that became a necessity in the spring.
Over the holidays, Ms. Ellis’s Covid-19 unit became so full that it once again had to transfer patients to other hospitals. And recently, a 45-year-old woman had to be intubated, a procedure that hadn’t been done on a patient so young since the spring.
“It’s starting again,” Ms. Ellis said. “Definitely.”