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How a line cook ended up working a vaccine line

Joe Reilly’s pandemic-year job hunt took him from restaurant to hospital morgue to Citi Field

The Mets Citi Field stadium opens as a COVID-19 vaccination mega-hub in Queens, New York, on Feb. 10. Photo by Anthony Behar/Sipa USA

How a line cook ended up working a vaccine line
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A New York moment:

Before the pandemic, Joe Reilly was a cook at a restaurant in New York City. When the virus forced lockdowns, Reilly lost his job: He wanted to work, but with restaurants shuttered, he didn’t know what to do.

A friend told him about a job in Brooklyn at Kings County Hospital, which was in desperate need of temporary staffers to deal with the coronavirus surge. Reilly got the job. On his first day, the hospital assigned him to something the cook never imagined doing: moving bodies of people who died of COVID-19 out of hospital beds and into the morgue.

I met Reilly while reporting recently from Citi Field, one of New York City’s 24-hour vaccine sites. Reilly was checking people in for their vaccine appointments at 2:00 in the morning—an hour when people seem to have more openness to conversation about their lives. I think Reilly’s life this past year encapsulates the experience of this city in the pandemic.

Reilly said he got the sense Kings County Hospital would have found other work for him if he had refused to move bodies. But he decided that someone would have to do it, and he found he could stomach it.

Still, he called it “scary.” He wondered each time he picked up a body whether he might contract the disease, and whether the personal protective equipment he wore would work. He had morbid thoughts, wondering whether the team would be able to carry him in a body bag, since he’s a big man, if he got the virus and died.

That particular hospital lost several nurses and physicians to the virus.

“I can’t describe how bad it was,” Reilly said. “Nurses and doctors were having straight-up breakdowns in a shift, and going in the supply closet to cry.”

With the hospital morgue overcrowded, he would move bodies to a storage truck outside. Eventually, when deaths and hospitalizations began to slow in the city, the public hospital moved him to a testing tent.

And then, when the vaccines came, the city moved him to the vaccination sites. Now that he’s worked in hospitals and dealt with the worst of the job, he’s thinking about becoming a nurse instead of going back to restaurants.

What an arc: Reilly went from line cook to a front-line healthcare worker.

This week I learned:

One Catholic church in Corona, Queens, lost 100 congregants to the coronavirus. The name of the parish? Our Lady of Sorrows.

Culture I’m consuming:

I’m currently reading half a dozen books at the same time, a bad habit, but one of them is Watership Down by Richard Adams. It’s a relief to read about the lives of rabbits when you’re writing about coronavirus pandemics and opioid epidemics.

Emily Belz

Emily is a former senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and also previously reported for the New York Daily News, The Indianapolis Star, and Philanthropy magazine. Emily resides in New York City.



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