The beginning of the pandemic was terrifying. As a volunteer EMT in Bergenfield, I was overwhelmed by the amount of death and suffering we witnessed.
Contrary to some reports, all kinds of people died in Bergen County—most were elderly, but some were middle-aged and even young adults, too. Seeing the fright in people’s eyes as we loaded their loved ones into the ambulance was agonizing. Hospitals weren’t allowing visitors and many people were afraid this would be the last time they saw their family member alive. Sadly, sometimes that was the case. The heroic doctors, nurses and other hospital caregivers did outstanding work and saved countless lives, but EMS had to go inside homes filled with pathogens like a firefighter going into a house engulfed in flame—only this time, the danger was invisible, there were no police officers or firefighters to accompany and protect us, and we were running out of PPE.
Baruch Hashem, we have smacked the virus down in a big way because of the social distancing mask wearing, other precautions, and lessons learned by the medical community on how to better treat COVID-19 patients. However, numbers are rising again and we still need to be careful. Nonetheless, while those in a high-risk category should still take the strictest precautions, the vast majority of people should not be afraid. Cautious, yes, but not scared. Showing caution and prudence by following COVID-19 regulations will help keep case numbers down. Fear, however, could have a terrible effect on our mental health.
Besides being a volunteer EMT, I have the honor of serving as director of the Bergenfield Office of Emergency Management (OEM). An agency that usually operates in the background, OEM has moved into the spotlight during the pandemic because we are responsible for planning for and coordinating responses to large emergencies (like pandemics) under the auspices of the New Jersey State Police. In New Jersey, we also have the authority to bypass legislative bodies and create temporary laws, even ones that deprive citizens of their rights, to address a state of emergency. It may sound cool, but it’s not. In reality, the burden of that responsibility is overwhelming. Interestingly, I was never too worried because our states of emergency were usually relatively minor—nothing more than a couple snow storms a year—or so I thought.
A “pandemic” was something relegated to the back of our Emergency Management textbooks near the chapters on radioactive fallout and typhoons: things in the category of “disasters we probably will never have in Bergen County,” yet here we are. This has been a difficult and confusing time for everyone, which is why we must guard against the constant barrage of conflicting information hurled at us almost every day. We constantly see and hear media reports, internet posts, and stories from friends riddled with inaccurate information by well-intentioned people who rely on their own internet research and personal experience, but that should not take the place of the guidance from public health experts.
To be sure, conflicting information from the country’s leading public health authority has at times added to the confusion. However, when not being influenced by politics like we’ve seen on the national level, local health departments are the authoritative source of information since they are privy to far more relevant information than anyone else.
There’s an entire world of public health and epidemiology whose raison d’être is fighting pandemics. They are the ones in the best position to analyze all the relevant data based upon critical information obtained by examining every local case that even local physicians don’t have access to. It is irresponsible to just read the CDC’s website, news reports from areas 100 miles away, or articles by fringe scientists cherry picked to fit one’s own beliefs, and declare that the precautions taken by our shuls and yeshivas are too stringent.
During a pandemic, when the stakes are still high, it’s important to make decisions and recommendations based upon local data from our own community and rely on those whose job it is to guide us. For articles clearly written with adequate knowledge of what is actually going on in our community, I recommend the pieces by Rabbi Dr. Aaron Glatt (COVID-19 Update; The Jewish Link, Oct. 1, 2020), and Dr. Robert Jawetz (We Must Continue to Work Together to Eradicate COVID; The Jewish Link, Oct. 1, 2020).
I have learned several lessons during the pandemic. One of the most striking has been witnessing the willingness of so many local volunteer EMTs to dive headfirst into uncertain danger to help their friends and neighbors. With little more than “good luck, we hope your N95 masks work” from the federal government, our local community mobilized its army of volunteer EMTs who didn’t hesitate to be there for their neighbors at perhaps the most vulnerable and scary time in a generation. Seeing so many people show true mesiras nefesh has given me a renewed sense of hope for humanity in a world that’s so divided. It should make us all incredibly proud to live in an area where this important lifesaving work is done every single day by a group of people who have taken on the responsibility to respond to all medical emergencies in town and not just one subset of it. With all the racial and religious tension in the world, it is critical for members of the frum community to continue being mikadesh shem shamayim by serving in their local volunteer ambulance corps.
Unfortunately, I have also learned how easy it is for people without the tremendous burden of decision making authority to complain and pontificate about the errors of those who are actually saddled with the responsibility to make decisions for the community. It’s not that hard to say what should or shouldn’t be done when you aren’t the one whose decisions may literally wind up killing someone.
Perhaps most significantly, I have learned that despite all the ills of the world, we are fortunate to live at a time when the biggest challenges most people face are apparently wearing a mask and facing potential quarantine if someone they come in contact with tests positive. Don’t get me wrong—I know the emotional toll this is taking on the community because I’m one of those local volunteer EMTs who respond to people’s homes during that 2 a.m. mental health crisis. The vast majority, however, will survive the precautions without psychological catastrophe. It’s hard to imagine that not too long ago B’nai Yisrael would’ve given just about anything to have their suffering replaced with a face mask and 14-day quarantine in suburbia.
Ryan Shell is the chief of Bergenfield Volunteer Ambulance Corps and director of the Bergenfield Office of Emergency Management.