Brooklyn public school teacher Erin McCarthy learned Friday that she’d tested negative for the coronavirus that’s hit more than 100,000 people across the globe, killing over 3,600.
But first she spent a week in hell — thanks to a bureaucracy that couldn’t handle her situation after she returned from a trip to Italy and worked for days with students before showing symptoms of the virus.
Initially told she could not be tested because she didn’t meet the proper “criteria,” McCarthy was left adrift on a sea of anxiety and dread — experiencing a claustrophobic dynamic of fear, uncertainty and frustration over being blamed for something that wasn’t her fault.
She received angry calls from colleagues. Anonymous trolls vilified her on social media. When she finally was about to be tested, the doctor told her, “You probably have it.”
After McCarthy got the good news Friday afternoon, she experienced both relief and profound sorrow.
“Finally on Friday night, I just wept. The whole thing was just too much,” she told THE CITY on Sunday. “I don’t like how everyone went into a mass panic and assumed I spread a disease around.”
She said the experience reminded her of the dissemination of misinformation at the advent of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. “Fear brings out the worst in people,” she said. “It really made me look at people differently.”
‘Passing the Buck’
McCarthy, 44, teaches art to special education students at Public School 369 in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. A married mom of two children, she has worked at PS 369 for 16 of her 19 years in the New York City public school system.
Over the February winter break, she and her mother took a trip to Northern Italy. They spent a week in the Lombardo and Veneto region, visiting Milan and Venice during Fashion Week.
When they arrived in Italy, airport workers took their temperature. At the time, only China was listed as a coronavirus hot zone by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
After she and her mother landed back at Kennedy Airport, McCarthy checked her phone and saw the number of people testing positive for coronavirus in the regions they just visited had spiked.
McCarthy returned to the classroom on Feb. 24, feeling fine. She visited the Department of Education website, which then only listed mainland China as a zone that would trigger testing.
A few days later, she began experiencing headaches. As the week progressed, she called HR Connect, the advice helpline for city employees.
“I told them the website wasn’t updated. It doesn’t include Iran. It doesn’t include South Korea. It doesn’t include Italy. And [the HR Connect representative] said, ‘I don’t know, I’ll have to get back to you.’ That’s it. They keep on passing the buck to someone else.”
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza speaks at a news conference at the Office of Emergency Management about the Coronavirus, March 2, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
Not everyone was passing the buck. McCarthy noted that when she told the school’s assistant principal about her concerns, she was “very supportive” — making a point of keeping their conversation confidential and checking up on her regularly.
McCarthy later called a coronavirus hotline set up by Mayor Bill de Blasio and was told the DOE was still listing only China as a hot zone. On the weekend of Feb. 29-March 1, a fever kicked in and her temperature hit 101 degrees. “It felt like there were bricks on my chest,” she said.
No Test Given
On Monday, March 2 — a day after Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the first confirmed coronavirus case in New York City — McCarthy visited the NYU Langone Health-Cobble Hill emergency department and said she ran into a bureaucratic wall.
Though the doctors were well-prepared to deal with coronavirus, wearing hazmat suits, fully masked, ready to perform the test, there was one problem: McCarthy did not meet the criteria that then existed.
Only a recent visit to China — not Italy — would trigger a test for someone of her age with no underlying medical issues, she was told.
“The doctor said she’d worked through the Ebola issue, she’d worked through many health crises and this was the first time that her hands were tied, that she could not test me, that she would like to, but she cannot,” McCarthy recalled.
“She said many people have come in and unless they hit certain guidelines — unless they had immune system issues or they were elderly — she could not test them.”
“I cried,” she said, recalling the surreal experience of sitting in a room with staff in full moon suits before being sent on her way.
Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks about the coronavirus at a Midtown news conference with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, March 2, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
McCarthy left with a letter stating that under Health Department rules, she was “mandated” to self-isolate until there was a “complete resolution” of the symptoms for an unspecified “viral condition.”
“It was quite a sight to be treated like you’re in that movie ‘Silkwood,’ and then to walk out and everything’s cool,” she said.
‘Panic’ at School
McCarthy called her school and informed them of the letter requiring her to self-isolate. She said a staffer called back soon after “in a panic.”
She says the staffer told her, “There are pregnant people there. They should know. If they find out later, they’re going to be mad at you.”
“I did not need this,” McCarthy said. “I did not get the memo on how to deal with this. I’m literally just trying to keep my own head above water right now.
“I was having anxiety attacks. I tried to play Uno with my kids. I couldn’t even focus on the game Uno. I forgot the rules.”
McCarthy said that if she simply been tested when she first went for help March 2, “It wouldn’t have gotten to the point that it went to. I thought I was having a heart attack.”
She then got a call from a city Department of Health official, who left a voice message stating, “I hope you don’t mind. Some of my colleagues shared your contact information with me. I understand you might have some questions and concerns about possible exposure to coronavirus.”
When McCarthy called back and asked how she got her number, she got a different story: “Some of your colleagues said you had some questions about the coronavirus.”
McCarthy said that conversation was followed by calls from colleagues expressing anger at her for not telling everyone that she potentially could have contracted coronavirus.
Then the building management where she lives in Brooklyn sent an email advising residents to report anyone with suspected coronavirus — including delivery workers and even neighbors — to the superintendent. The building management later retracted the email, McCarthy said.
On Wednesday, THE CITY ran a story about McCarthy’s plight, without identifying her by name. Soon after, de Blasio promised she would be tested and that new criteria for handling such cases would soon be announced.
Meanwhile, McCarthy said she was shaken by social media reaction to THE CITY’s story — including anonymous tweet that declared, “She should be jailed. She’s technically a terrorist. When will people realize this is serious?”
On Thursday, Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot signed an emergency order mandating that all teachers, first responders and city health care workers must be tested if they’d recently been in any of the countries designed the prior week as hot zones — South Korea, Iran, Japan and Italy — in addition to China.
That day, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew called McCarthy, apologized for what she’d experienced and promised to help arrange testing.
‘You Probably Have it’
That was followed by a call from a city Department of Health staffer named Ellie who, McCarthy emphasized, “was amazing.” Ellie apologized for the way McCarthy had been treated, and set up a test at New York-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital in Park Slope.
McCarthy waited four hours in an empty room with an open door and no bed or chair. When the doctor finally walked in, she said he told her, “You probably have it.”
The test included sticking a swab deep into her nasal cavity and far down her throat.
She was informed the test had come back negative around 1:10 p.m. Friday, five days after she’d initially requested the test.
As of Saturday, McCarthy was one of three city public school teachers who’d tested negative for coronavirus after visiting the regions of Italy where the illness was spiking during the winter break. One of the teachers was tested right away. McCarthy and a teacher at a Lower Manhattan school had to wait for days.
As of Sunday city health officials had tallied 13 individuals who’d tested positive for coronavirus. Results of 76 tests remained pending.
McCarthy is taking some time off. For now, she hopes to return to her school, but is unsure how the PS 369 community will react.
The UFT planned to send a representative to the school Monday to talk with staff and ensure that McCarthy is treated fairly when she gets back to work at a job she loves.
“Putting you through all this, thinking you had this disease, nobody testing you, going into quarantine,” she said, struggling to process her ordeal.
“By the end, I just lost it.”