During the first two months of 2020, Herine Baron was in a pretty constant state of bliss, driving around Miami accompanied by the pulsating rhythms of Caribbean party music. A new mother at 28, she was enjoying her chubby-cheeked baby, Malcolm, and making plans to build a house. As she returned from maternity leave to her hospital nursing job, she had only one big question hanging over her: should she continue her education with an eye toward administration or more advanced nursing?
Little did she know what lay ahead. Little did anyone.
In Boston, Josee Matela, 21, was juggling: six part-time jobs, three senior-year college classes and two extracurricular responsibilities. It was a grind, but she was buoyed by the end in sight. In May, Matela, the first member of her Filipino immigrant family to attend college in the U.S., would graduate from Boston University with degrees in journalism and international relations. And then, she thought, she would launch.
Mahum Khalid, 27, a hotel worker and student in San Francisco, also felt on the cusp of something life-changing. After years of abusing alcohol and drugs — especially heroin — she had been frightened in late January by a weeks-long manic episode triggered by mixed drug use. Coming out of it, she read on Twitter about Kobe Bryant’s death and the deadly virus in China. She felt like the world was upside down, and she desperately needed to make a change. After entering treatment for the first time, she started collecting days, then weeks, of sobriety.
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In Brooklyn, Parker McAllister, 29, was seeing signs that 2020 would shape up as a year he could present to his parents and say, See? It was all worth it. They had honored his wishes to attend an elite conservatory to study the bass, even hosting fundraisers in their Bedford Stuyvesant brownstone to send him there. Now he had booked 60 shows through the summer, including tours in the Bahamas and Europe. Soon, he believed, he’d be able to help out his parents – who were struggling to hold onto their home in a gentrifying neighborhood – and buy himself some breathing room to slow down and invest in his artistry.
Also in New York City, Ngoc Cindy Pham, 32, had by early this year finally settled into her life as a Brooklyn College business professor. She had grown up in Vietnam, where her parents worked long hours to send her to graduate school in the U.S. Here, she had regularly devoted 18 hours a day to her master’s and doctoral studies, ignoring her personal life for fear she would squander her parents’ sacrifices. She did feel she was living a one-dimensional existence in her “bachelor apartment,” and promised herself she would start dating in 2020. But, before everything changed, she was focused on helping her students move up in the world, much as she had.
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Kara Frey, 26, and Nate Morris, 24, meanwhile, were laying the foundations for a life together in their new apartment in Toledo. They were starting to talk about marriage, and for once, their work lives seemed blessedly stable. Frey, a construction worker, was busy with a five-week installation project at Sephora stores in Southern California, while Morris had just landed a job as a patient registration specialist at a local hospital.
In Odessa, Texas, Jessica Fajardo’s year kicked off with a bang. After searching for work that suited her — trying out dental hygiene, daycare, arcades — she had found her calling as a phlebotomist and her ideal job at a small family medicine center. On Jan. 5, which was her 30th birthday, her colleagues decorated the office and gave her gifts. Then, at day’s end, her best friend, Maria Hernandez, surprised her with a dinner party at a new ramen restaurant. The youngest of five children in a close-knit Mexican-American family, Fajardo was surrounded that night by relatives and friends. When they sang to her, she became overwhelmed.
She wiped away a tear, then blew out her candles.
There existed a time before people spoke each day of deadly viruses and ventilators and mobile morgues; before they socially distanced and self-quarantined and sheltered in place; before, newly fluent in terms like PPE and N95, they clapped and banged pots at sunset to honor doctors, nurses and essential workers.
At the start of 2020, Americans were ushering in a new decade and what was shaping up to be a dynamic presidential election year. China was already reporting patients afflicted by a mysterious disease, but in the United States, many young people were writing New Year’s resolutions and setting what seemed to be reasonable goals.
On Jan. 1, there were about 75 million people in the U.S. between the ages of 18 and 35. Some 3 million were expected to graduate with bachelor’s and post-graduate degrees in the new year, and step into what was forecast to be a healthy job market. At year’s start, the unemployment rate was at a 50-year low, and it was under 2 percent for those with a bachelor’s degree or more. The sectors whose employees skew younger — like retail and food services — were looking robust.
Over the last couple of months, as the picture changed, we interviewed more than 100 young people about who they were before the pandemic, what happened to them when the pandemic struck, and where they find themselves now. For a rolling feature called Notes on the Pandemic, we spoke with college students and young professionals; artists and teachers; gig workers and restaurant employees; nurses, doctors, and other essential workers; incarcerated people and people in recovery; young parents and pregnant women who gave birth during the pandemic.
We wanted to understand how the pandemic has affected younger people at this formative time of their lives, just as financial downturns, war and other major events colored the lives of prior generations.
In some ways, heading into a protracted shutdown, this generation was better equipped. They are more accustomed to navigating the world through technology, to communicating primarily on devices, and to working from home.
Yet: they grew up in the shadow of 9/11. The oldest among them entered the job market after the financial crisis of 2008. The youngest grew up with lockdown drills and the fear of school shootings. Their social media feeds have long been filled with conversations about: the opioid crisis, mass incarceration, rising inequality, political polarization and climate change. It’s a generation in which two in three college students graduate with an average of about $30,000 in debt, and some 1.3 million have served in the military during a period of several overseas conflicts.
Before the pandemic, then, many of those interviewed were already in an unsettled state. And yet they were revving for a future — or at least a year — that seemed to hold promise.
The Pandemic Strikes
On March 11, the day that the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic, Herine Baron, the Miami nurse, was treating a patient who came into her emergency room with a fever. Fifteen minutes before her shift ended, the patient was moved to isolation, and she was tasked with doing his bloodwork. Only at that point was Baron given an N95 respirator mask, a gown and gloves, she said.
Herine Baron, 28, a nurse, spikes a high fever a week after treating a Covid-19 patient.
A week later, while working a night shift, Baron started feeling feverish. By the time she got home, her fever had spiked to 103, so she returned to the hospital. She was admitted with what would be diagnosed as Covid-19.
“I felt like my brain was cooking,” she said.
That same day, after BU announced its classes would be going remote, Josee Matela panicked about losing the jobs that she needed to make it through her final semester. Hunkering down in her campus apartment, she created a spreadsheet — “March Madness,” she called it — to track her finances. Six days later, she found out that students had to leave the university in five days’ time. She felt heartsick. She sobbed on a call to her family in New Jersey, and then proceeded to pack her belongings in trash bags.
“When I had to move out of BU housing,” she said, “it kind of created this shift where the life that I was working on was completely done.”
By March 11, Mahum Khalid had achieved 45 days of sobriety. Considering the negative milestones of her life — she started drinking at nine, taking pills at 13, using heroin at 20 — this was a significant win. But when San Francisco shut down a few days later so did a mental health program she needed after addiction treatment. Then her hours at her hotel job were cut. Suddenly, she was locked down inside her parents’ home, which she had found stultifying even with the freedom to come and go as she pleased to classes, work and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. A nerve-jangling mixture of boredom, frustration and family tensions began to test her resolve.
Parker McAllister, 29, a touring bassist, gets an email from his manager: “Prepare for all of April to be canceled.”
“Being at home is not a good place for my recovery,” she said. “Being stuck in the house is making me want to use.”
On March 12, Parker McAllister, the bassist, ventured to the Lower East Side of Manhattan to check out the band with which he’d soon be touring the Bahamas. Italy’s strict lockdown had already derailed his European tour, but, he thought, would getting stuck (and making money) in an island paradise be the worst thing in the world? He wouldn’t find out. The next day, the band leader called off the trip, and on March 17, McAllister’s manager sent an email: “Prepare for all of April to be canceled.”
After Brooklyn College moved classes online in mid-March, Ngoc Pham busied herself trying to help her students, but they were dealing with problems beyond her control, like canceled internships and family members dying of Covid-19. From time to time, she sent small
gift cards to those who were clearly struggling. But really, there was little she could do. Alone at home in her sparsely decorated apartment, she felt a discomfort — a sadness — growing. It was exacerbated when, during Zoom meetings, she caught glimpses of her colleagues’ lives: kids, pets, beautiful houses.
“Before I had professional connections, so I didn’t feel too lonely,” she said. “Now all of those connections have disappeared.”
By March 22, Nate Morris had adopted a new routine when he returned home from St. Anne Hospital in Toledo, where his job was to check in patients at the ER. He’d go straight into the basement, remove and wash his scrubs, clean his hands, and then wipe down all surfaces he had touched.
That day, he felt a bit off, but it had been a long work week. The next morning, though, he woke up feeling awful. Neither Morris nor his girlfriend, Kara Frey, were shocked. They knew he was likely exposed to Covid-19 patients at work. But they weren’t worried. He was young, healthy and athletic — a competitive recreational hockey player. They anticipated a few days of misery with cold symptoms.
But Morris started running a fever, and when it couldn’t be broken, his girlfriend had a dawning realization: “I was, like, wow, this is really happening.”
By the time Frey took Morris to the emergency room, he was sick with pneumonia and so dehydrated his kidneys were shutting down. Days later, Morris was placed in a medical coma, intubated and hooked up to a ventilator.
In Odessa, Texas, Jess Fajardo, the phlebotomist, understood almost immediately that her symptoms — coughing, mostly — were bad news. Because she had asthma and diabetes and because she worked at a doctor’s office, she was worried from the minute the coronavirus started spreading across the U.S. She shut herself away in her room at her parents’ house, telling her mother, who’d leave her food outside the door: “Mom, don’t even knock — nothing.”
On March 17, she texted her friend Maria Hernandez: “I think it’s fascinating that the world is cleaning up by slowly getting rid of us. Mother Nature is like, nah, y’all, it’s getting too hot on me. Time to take care of some of y’all.”
But when Fajardo’s symptoms escalated, she wrote Hernandez a different kind of text, with instructions on what to do with her ashes, should the time come.
She finally went to a hospital to get tested on March 27; she was initially denied testing because health officials attributed her symptoms to her obesity, her friend Sarah Jarocki said. (Later, it would turn out that there had been at least 10 Covid-19 cases at the medical office where she worked, according to her boss, Dr. Madhu Pamganamamula. He believes that the chain of infection began with another employee, who then transmitted the virus to Fajardo and the others. He said he shut his office on March 19, the day after the first employee took ill.)
While awaiting her test results, Fajardo experienced a coughing fit so intense it made her cry. The next day, she checked into the hospital, and her test came back positive.
On March 30, she posted an update on Facebook: “I want to thank everyone for your kind words, prayers and encouragements,” she wrote from her hospital bed. “I plan to keep fighting this as best as I can.”
One friend, referring to the music video game Dance Dance Revolution, commented: “So … you don’t want to come play DDR now?”
And Fajardo, who by that point was incapable of talking “without almost hacking up a lung,” responded: “I’m still down for a ‘rona party.”
Before the country quieted to a whisper, one theme in news coverage was inter-generational squabbling. Pointing to spring-break partying and crowded bars in cities yet to shutter, some stories cited older adults complaining that young people weren’t taking the pandemic seriously. Some young people, in turn, said their parents were in denial as they refused to curtail their activities.
Soon, the pandemic erased the differences.
While older Americans faced a far greater risk of severe illness and death, young people started getting sick, too. About 1 in 10 patients admitted to hospitals for Covid-19 symptoms was under 40. By early May, nearly 400 people aged 34 and younger had died of the disease in the United States, according to provisional data that is likely an undercount.
Economically, the pandemic shutdowns hit young Americans hardest. From March to April, unemployment for Americans under 25 tripled. More than half of Americans younger than 30 lost their job or took a pay cut, compared with 40 percent overall, according to a report by the Pew Research Center. Young people dominate certain sectors that have been most profoundly affected — like the food-service industry and the gig economy. Yet most young Americans — two-thirds of those under 30 — had no “rainy day” money set aside to cover their expenses.
Losing jobs, getting kicked off campuses and going remote for work, many young people relocated. Not only college students but many young professionals found themselves back in their childhood bedrooms. Many saw it as temporary, but the last downturn, the 2008 financial crash, drove many young adults back home for what became extended periods; even before the pandemic, one in six people between 25 and 34 lived under their parents’ roofs.
What Just Happened?
Lying in her Miami hospital bed, Baron switched roles and became a patient. Very quickly, she grew disheartened by the way her colleagues at Jackson Memorial Hospital refused to enter her room for fear of catching the virus themselves. In tearful testimony on YouTube, she decried what she saw as her hospital’s missteps; it got more than 220,000 views.
Jackson Memorial said it has investigated Baron’s situation and that “we remain confident that all Jackson’s caregivers are getting the best possible protection during a fast-moving and fast-changing health crisis.”
During her hospitalization, separated from her baby, Baron pumped, and dumped, her breast milk, fearful of passing on the virus to him. On the day she was discharged, she learned that her son Malcolm had tested positive for Covid-19. This made her sad, she said, especially because doctors had advised her to remain in isolation at home and she wouldn’t be able to nurse her own child back to health. Malcolm remained in the care of his grandmother for another couple of weeks.
In the month that she spent at home, she and her son both recovered fully. One day during that period, for which she was paid worker’s compensation, she had to return to her hospital for further testing. Stepping inside a place that she once venerated, she felt pangs of dread and anxiety. She worried about the day she’d have to return as an employee.
When she did return, it took her time to calm her nerves. But her concerns dissipated. As she saw it, the hospital had improved its handling of the virus and become more supportive of its workers. During daily staff meetings, managers asked her and her colleagues to speak up if they needed anything to help them perform their duties more safely. She began working closely with Covid-19 patients, grateful that she could understand their pain because she had experienced it.
The whole ordeal has left her certain about the decision that nagged at her before the pandemic. If in her carefree state back then, she was contemplating a career pivot toward hospital administration, she has now decided to continue her studies in advanced nursing, doubling down on her original motivation for entering the health field, which was to provide compassionate care to patients.
“I always looked at nurses as heroes, that’s one of the reasons that I became a nurse,” she said. “But I feel like we’re getting recognized more.”
After Josee Matela was forced to move off campus, she was thrown into a semblance of post-grad life, newly navigating bill-splitting and household chores with roommates. She was able to keep three part-time jobs — campus brand manager for HBO, marketing associate for FinTech Sandbox, and co-coordinator of her communications college’s ambassador program. For the time being, she can afford rent, but she’s very anxious about her future income because the job market is so bleak.
Boston University postponed its commencement ceremony. So when Matela completed her final exam for a public diplomacy class, there was nothing to mark the end. She doesn’t know when, if ever, she’ll be able to throw her cap in the air or give her family the joy of watching their first college graduate walk across a stage. To help herself and others like her appreciate how far they’ve come, she created a digital yearbook for first-generation college students.
For the last four years, Matela had been working hard to set herself up for a journalism or international relations career after graduation. At the year’s start, when the job market looked to be red-hot, she anticipated moving immediately to New York or Washington, D.C. Now, though, amid uncertainty, she’s staying in Boston. It is unnatural for her to play the part, as she described herself, of “a very driven bear in hibernation.” But, she said, “I’m willing to take a step back or just see what happens because that’s what the world’s doing.”
Staying home, and home, and home, with her family was challenging for Mahum Khalid at such an early point in her recovery. Before the lockdown, she depended on her hotel job to distract her during the day. At night, Narcotics Anonymous meetings kept her both psychologically and socially tethered; they’d spill over into long post-meeting diner hangouts every Friday evening.
Mahum Khalid, 27, a student and hotel worker, has achieved 52 days of sobriety.
Her hotel job, at first, disappeared completely. And virtual NA just didn’t do it for her. One night, she sneaked a bottle of a relative’s Adderall into her room, and slept with it for comfort — though she didn’t take any, reminding herself that she preferred downers to uppers. At the end of April, when her manager asked her to return to the hotel for five hours a week, she found the outside world brought back old urges. She clocked out of work one day, got in her car and ended up at a liquor store. But she just sat in the parking lot, for a long time, knowing that drinking would likely lead to using. Finally, she turned the car back on, made a U-turn and drove home.
Not long ago, Khalid couldn’t hold onto a job for more than two weeks; in one humiliating instance, she nodded off at her desk and woke up to find a sticky note in her hair saying, “You’re fired.” Sheltering in place, she said, has given her time to reflect on how far she has come from there. It has also afforded her time to dream about building a future once her world reopens: Could she work enough hours to save enough money to buy a farm? Could she build on it a sober living house for others addicts looking to start over? Could she find peace there?
With his performance calendar extending emptily into the future, McAllister wondered how far he could stretch his $1,000 in savings as his earnings slowed. For how long would he be able to pay his parents $800 a month to live in their guest room — which was, in turn, a way to help them pay their mortgage? His father had recently started home dialysis. Would McAllister be able to insulate him from the threat the outside world posed?
Soon, some checks for previous performances arrived, but, with the world now awash in out-of-work musicians, he knew he would need to expand his career beyond the plucking of his bass strings. He lugged his amplifier from his car into his parents’ parlor, so that he could produce something like studio sound. He got some production work, started creating samples for a music-production platform called Splice, and taught himself video-editing. He still practiced his instrument three to four hours daily, he said, but to be competitive, he’d have to learn to be “the engineer, the producer and the musician.”
If two months earlier McAllister had hoped to buy himself some slow-down time with the income from a busy touring schedule, he now had to regroup and hustle. But, he said, he was down to pivot.
Ngoc Cindy Pham, 32, a Brooklyn College professor, cries about quarantine loneliness on a call to her mom in Vietnam.
In mid-April, Ngoc Pham called her mother in Vietnam and broke down crying. The prior month of isolation had been far quieter than the spring she initially planned: preparing her students for graduation, lining them up with jobs and internships, and getting ready for New York Fashion Week as its director of marketing. Instead she was alone, trying to burn time cooking meticulous meals, eating what she could, but still having leftovers for days.
During the lockdown, her loneliness — the whole dating thing never really got off the ground earlier this year — surfaced. She yearned for someone other than her mother to call when she cried, for someone to hug at night.
“It’s really sad to not have anyone to talk to,” she said. “I doubt myself — why have I been working for such a long time? What’s the goal? What is happiness? I’ve tried to redefine what happiness means. Is it a successful career or family?”
Two weeks after Nate Morris started running an intense fever, Kara Frey sat alone on their living room couch in Toledo. In her head, she toggled between two images of her boyfriend: the sturdy, gregarious, hockey player and the unconscious patient lying in a negative-pressure hospital isolation unit.
Kara Frey’s partner, Nate Morris, 24, is placed on ventilator due to Covid-19.
With their cats curled up next to her, she realized it had been 11 days since she had heard her partner’s voice. “I’ve had a couple nights where I’ve missed him so badly, and I’ve just been scared,” she said. “Scared as hell.”
Morris’s hospitalization stretched longer and longer. He’d come off the ventilator for a few hours one day and be back on higher levels of sedation the next. “It really was a huge blow to my optimism,” Frey said. She became exhausted from seeing endless stories in her social media feeds about people refusing to practice social distancing. “I can’t help but think ‘Wow, that might be nice for your worst-case scenario to be staying home,’” she said. “My worst-case scenario is Nate dying.”
Finally, on a sunny Sunday morning, came a series of loud thuds on her bedroom window. Frey emerged from a deep sleep to find Morris’ stepmother standing outside with a message: Nate is trying to reach you. She rolled over and saw the missed calls on her phone. The night before, Morris had woken up and pulled out his breathing tube himself. When they spoke for the first time in three weeks, he asked if Frey had contracted Covid-19 while he was in a coma. She said no. “Good,” he said, “’cause this sucks!”
Nate Morris, 24, a hospital worker, comes out of coma, pulling out his breathing tube.
After Morris woke up, he had some residual issues: a cough, fatigue and paralysis in his left arm. But his personality remained intact. When he FaceTimed his girlfriend to demonstrate his ability to feed himself Jell-O, Frey breathed a sigh of relief. He was still a jokester.
Some things weren’t funny, though. Reflecting on the days before he got sick, Morris saw himself at his hospital’s reception desk, with no protective glass between himself and the patients. He wore a mask, but he was only issued one a day, he said, in a voice still hoarse from a trachea tube. (The hospital, in a statement, said its mask policy was consistent with federal government guidelines, and that it had installed protective screens “as an added precaution” on April 1, which was after Morris got sick. It declined to discuss his case, citing privacy concerns.)
Morris and Frey know there’s a long road ahead, physically, financially, and emotionally. But for now, they’re just happy that the road exists.
The day before she was intubated, Fajardo, the phlebotomist, sang “Happy Birthday” to her best friend. It was hard to do. She was crying, and her breathing was ragged. She tried again by text: “Happy Birthday bestie. Sorry that I’m dying.”
Over the next week, Fajardo’s condition improved, and doctors cleared her for extubation. When they tried, however, she fought them off — so hard one time that she fell out of bed. Over FaceTime, her sister tried to calm her before the next attempt. During the call, Fajardo was crying. She tried to lift her hand, as if to communicate something, but she was too weak.
The next day, which was Easter Sunday, doctors succeeded in removing Fajardo’s breathing tube. But she did not survive the procedure. Her mother, Elsa, said that her rapid deterioration had stunned them.
“I don’t know how long it will take us to recover from her loss,” her mother said.
The Fajardo family held a “drive-through viewing,” and broadcast her funeral live on Facebook. Instead of mourners, the room was filled with 66 gold and white star-shaped balloons, each bearing the name of a person who had attended the viewing. After the service, the balloons were released outside the funeral home. Tied in a cluster, they snagged on an overhead power line, creating a loud explosion and shorting power to the neighborhood. But a few managed to break free, floating off into the sky.
Jess Fajardo blowing out candles at her surprise 30th birthday party in January.
Courtesy of Abby Guerra
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