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Honoring our pandemic heroes

Medical staff tend to a COVID-19 patient at

Medical staff tend to a COVID-19 patient at Mount Sinai South Nassau in Oceanside, in April 2020. Credit: Newsday/Jeffrey Basinger

We’re still counting the ways New York’s essential workers sacrificed and suffered through the pandemic: the long hours, the threat of illness, the uncertainty on the job even as others could stay home.

We know some of the toll, the thousands of New York hospital staff, grocery workers, first responders, and in-person laborers who were infected during the pandemic. COVID-19 took the life of 161 Metropolitan Transportation Authority workers. The count of just the New York State Nurses Association nurses who died of COVID-19 is at least 38. They are among thousands of front line workers across the country who lost their lives to this scourge.

A memorial and monument to essential workers honors them and what they gave to society, taking risks and making sacrifices to protect us all. The physical monument proposed in April by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is a good first step, honoring 17 essential worker groups including health care professionals, teachers, delivery drivers, and building service, utility, and construction workers. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s idea for a ticker-tape parade honoring health care workers and first responders along the Canyon of Heroes — when it’s safe to gather — also is apt.

But essential workers, like military veterans, should get more than symbolic thank-yous for their service.

Earlier this year, we called for an effort in the style of the World Trade Center Health Program to support mental health services for a new generation of first responders. The American Rescue Plan signed by President Joe Biden in March included millions of dollars in funding for the mental health needs of doctors, nurses, and health care providers struggling with pandemic PTSD. That funding must trickle down to real and sustained help for hospital workers who need it, and we need to think hard about the way the health care industry can run its workers ragged even in pandemic-free times. New mental health programs launched by hospitals and other organizations must endure.

Businesses should consider how to set up job sites that safeguard in-person workers, a subject the NY Hero Act addresses.

Some hospitals provided hazard pay to front line staff, the right move and one other employers of essential workers should mirror. Proposed state legislation floats hazard pay for certain essential workers during a state disaster emergency. At the very least, harried front line workers from hospitals to sanitation trucks deserve more wellness days and other benefits for continued coping — plus support for their own health if they survived COVID-19 but have lingering effects.

Local communities, too, should develop their own tributes to honor essential workers, an outgrowth of the pizzas and morale-boosting signs sent to hospitals as the pandemic burned last year.

New York’s essential workers have shouldered the burden for months. That must not be forgotten as vaccinations increase and regular life — with the help of their labor — returns.

— The editorial board

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