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How the Virus Swept Through a Corner of Queens

Queens is no longer an epicenter of the pandemic. But for a few weeks in the spring, nowhere in the country suffered more.

A story written by my colleagues Dan Barry and Annie Correal conveys in wrenching terms the emotional and social toll that the virus inflicted as it tore through a corner of the borough during the darkest days of March and April.

[After the virus hit Queens, the nation was put on alert to its potential to devastate communities.]

Here is a glimpse of what they found.

A clamorous neighborhood made unrecognizable

Five neighborhoods in Queens — Woodside, Elmhurst, East Elmhurst, Jackson Heights and Corona — normally showcase New York’s diversity. Along Roosevelt Avenue, vendors sell woven baskets from Ecuador and leather sandals from Mexico, and Indian grocers display their produce.

But by the end of March, the streets were deserted. The sound of sirens was constant. Business after business began to shut down because of the pandemic.

Crowded conditions and vulnerable populations

Many people in these neighborhoods lived in small homes with relatives or friends, splitting high rents. Others lived among strangers, paying for a room or maybe just a bed. And they often held construction jobs, drove taxis, cleaned buildings or cooked in kitchens, among other service work.

Many could not socially distance at work or at home.

And many undocumented immigrants in the neighborhoods did not have health insurance or a primary care physician.

Neighborhoods — and a nation — unprepared

New Yorkers did not realize that by mid-March the coronavirus had already been circulating for weeks, and people and institutions struggled to understand a new and dangerous disease.

On a micro level, Queens residents like Yimel Alvarado, who worked in a nightclub in Corona, played down early symptoms: She initially thought her sickness was just a cold.

On a macro level, doctors at places like Elmhurst Hospital, which serves the communities, had to rethink their assumptions, including the idea that the virus always revealed itself with fever, coughing and respiratory distress. Doctors soon encountered a growing number of symptoms among the flood of patients who appeared.

People pushed to another level

Even people who regularly dealt with death were shaken by the virus’s toll. Tom Habermann, 34, manager and resident mortician of the Guida Funeral Home, drove from hospital to hospital, collecting bodies. In eight weeks in the spring, the home handled as many deaths as it usually does in an entire year.

Sometimes, at the end of the day after his rounds, he cried.

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