In early March of last year, Jorge Morales was keeping customers caffeinated at Mike’s Coffee Express, a popular roadside food truck near LaGuardia Airport in Queens that he ran for more than 30 years.
At the time, a few Covid-19 cases had been reported in New York City, and while city and state officials said they were monitoring the virus, they urged residents to remain calm. Officials hadn’t yet recommended wearing masks or taking other precautions. Like other New Yorkers, Mr. Morales went about his life, putting in long hours in the truck, serving a mix of airport workers, taxi drivers, and students at a nearby college.
“There was nothing in the air about what was going to happen,” Mr. Morales’s son, Danny Morales, said. “We were all in perfect spirits.”
On March 11, Jorge Morales, 65 years old, fell ill with a fever and began vomiting for four days straight, his son said. His condition worsened, leaving him unable to get out of bed in his home in Jackson Heights, Queens. Family members said Mr. Morales was hospitalized out of fear he was suffering complications of his Type-2 diabetes, but he later tested positive for Covid-19.
On April 7, Mr. Morales and 814 other New York City residents died from the virus. It was the deadliest day of the pandemic’s deadliest week in the city, according to city health department data. During that week, which began April 5, 5,319 residents died from the virus and nearly 10,000 people were hospitalized, the data show.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio began lockdown measures in mid-March, including closing schools and shifting restaurants to takeout only. A full shutdown of the city happened on March 22. Epidemiologists and city officials credit the shutdown, along with orders to wear masks, for slowing the spread of Covid-19. But by then the virus had already surged in the city.
On March 10, the city had 173 Covid-19 cases, health department data show, although testing was limited at the time. By March 22, the number of cases had jumped to 23,457. An increase in hospitalizations and deaths followed, with the deadliest day following more than two weeks later.
“It is not a quick death and this is why it took so long to reach this peak after the lockdowns started,” said Dr. Angelique Corthals, a biomedical and forensic anthropologist who is an associate professor at John Jay College at the City University of New York.
Many families who lost loved ones during the deadliest week described that time as chaotic and said they didn’t know their loved ones would become part of such a grim toll. Most had to grieve privately because of lockdown measures. Some said they still go over what they could have done differently.
“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t go through an account in my head of things I might have missed, things I could have done,” said Simone Andrews, a psychologist whose husband, Levester Thompson Jr., died of Covid-19 at Staten Island’s Richmond University Medical Center on April 6, 2020.
“You don’t know if the outcome would have been different, but you still replay.”
Mr. Thompson, who was known as “LT,” was 46 and healthy, his wife said. He was the equipment and retail sales manager in the athletic department at New York University, where he had also been an assistant coach for the women’s basketball team. The couple, who met as students at NYU, raised their two children, Jade, 21, and Chase, 13, on Staten Island.
News reports about Covid-19 in early March prompted Mr. Thompson to wear a mask and gloves while commuting, his wife said. On March 13, he began feeling ill. He grew sicker over several days and ultimately collapsed at the family’s home, Dr. Andrews said. He was hospitalized on March 18.
At the time, most people were unable to visit their loved ones in hospitals, leaving many to rely on phone calls and video chats to connect.
Dr. Andrews said she connected with her husband over FaceTime on the day he died. He couldn’t talk because he had been intubated, she said, but she knew he could hear, so she played a song by his favorite band, the Smashing Pumpkins, and told him that she loved him.
A few months ago, she received a medical bill for her husband with the itemized list of procedures for his Covid-19 care. She hasn’t been able to look at it, she said.
“It’s actually pretty disheartening to think that your body is prodded and has all of this done to it in the name of being saved, but then ultimately you die alone,” she said.
Jackie Bray, a top official in the mayor’s office who worked on the city’s Covid-19 response, said that during the deadliest week, city officials didn’t know when deaths and hospitalizations would subside. On April 6, 2020, the city asked the federal government to provide additional body bags, Ms. Bray said.
“It was one of those days where you felt the virus was always a step ahead of you,” she said. At the time, the city had already faced shortages of personal-protective equipment and medication, she said.
While that week was among the darkest days in the city, Ms. Bray said, it also marked a turning point. By April 7, city officials believed they would need fewer hospital beds in the coming days and began talking internally about the city moving to a more manageable phase of the virus that involved testing and contact tracing, she said.
“The acceleration slowed,” Ms. Bray said.
After Mr. Morales died, his family raised $15,000 on a GoFundMe page to help pay for his funeral and living expenses. The money has since run out, and his wife, Maggie, and daughter, Ivanna, had to reopen the food truck.
The truck has fewer customers now. Mrs. Morales plans to sell their house in Jackson Heights and move upstate, close to where her son, Danny, lives. After she moves, she might reopen the truck to sell Ecuadorean food.
“My mom and dad always wanted to retire and go to the country and live on a farm,” Danny Morales said. “It never happened for my dad.”
Write to Katie Honan at Katie.Honan@wsj.com
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