Rescuers searching for survivors at Ground Zero, Sept 13 2001.

Rescuers searching for survivors at Ground Zero, Sept 13 2001. Credit: Newsday/Viorel Florescu

World Trade Center responders with chronic health conditions who contract COVID-19 may have more serious and long-term illness from the virus, according to a new study from the Stony Brook World Trade Center Health and Wellness Program.

The study looked at 1,280 patients at the program with COVID-19, all of whom were 9/11 responders, comparing ones with chronic disease to those without. It was published this month in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

“Being down at the World Trade Center site, being exposed the way they were and developing these diseases puts them at significant risk for diseases that arise even unexpectedly,” Dr. Benjamin Luft, lead author of the study and director of the Stony Brook WTC Health and Wellness Program, told Newsday on Monday.

“It’s a combination of different conditions together that make them more susceptible,” Luft said. “When you put them all together, they not only make them susceptible for acute infection but make them more susceptible for the long-term consequences of COVID.”

 WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT STONY BROOK STUDY ON 9/11 RESPONDERS

  • World Trade Center responders with chronic health conditions who have COVID-19 could experience more severe illness and long-term symptoms according to a new study. 
  • Responders with conditions like upper respiratory disease, heart disease and depression were more likely to have long COVID-19. 
  • Advocates urged 9/11 responders to get vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19 since they already have weakened immune systems. 

While the number of COVID-19 cases statewide has dropped in recent weeks, Long Island still has the highest percentage of positive test results when compared with other regions.

“With re-infections on the rise, it is incredibly important that we continue to monitor the impact of COVID on these responders and that we consider the possibility that these COVID infections have already left a lasting imprint on this group and much of the public’s health,” said Sean Clouston, co-author of the study and associate professor at the Department of Family, Population and Preventive Medicine at the Renaissance School of Medicine, and Program in Public Health at Stony Brook.

Researchers found 9/11 responders in the study with severe COVID-19 were likely to be older in age, African-American, have obstructive airway disease and worsening symptoms of depression, the study reported.

Patients with long COVID-19 symptoms had often been diagnosed with severe COVID-19, upper respiratory diseases, GERD, obstructive airway disease, heart diseases and higher incidence of depression.

John Feal, a 9/11 first responder from Nesconset who has become an advocate for other first responders, said he tried to get the message out at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 that survivors needed to be especially careful.

In a video with lawyer Michael Barasch, Feal urged people to take the then-mysterious virus seriously.

“I told them not to make this political,” said Feal, who lost half of his left foot after working to clear rubble from Ground Zero. “Listen to the experts because your immune systems are compromised.”

Then Feal himself contracted COVID-19 and developed pneumonia. Breathing was so difficult, he felt as if he was under water. After he recovered, Feal continued to urge 9/11 survivors to take precautions.

“The long-term effects of 9/11 and the long-term effects of COVID is the perfect recipe to shorten the life of a 9/11 hero,” Feal said.

Barasch, of the law firm Barasch & McGarry, represents more than 30,000 9/11 responders and survivors.

“We have lost over 100 of our 9/11 clients to COVID already,” said Barasch, who counsels his clients to get vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19 but has met some resistance.

“This study highlights how at risk they are,” he said. “If you were sitting in my office every day hearing the phone calls of widows and family members whose loved ones have died of COVID, you can’t imagine why someone wouldn’t get vaccinated. … I recognize this has become a political football but set politics aside and protect yourself and protect your family.”

Latest videos