As U.S. coronavirus cases have grown to 1 million and more than 53,000 people across the nation have lost their lives, essential employees have been stocking store shelves, making our deliveries, caring for the elderly and keeping us safe.
This week’s issue of PEOPLE honors these everyday heroes, including Joe Hudak, a 56-year-old rescue paramedic with the New York City Fire Department.
Recalling how he was among the first responders after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, then 9/11 and the 2001 crash of an American Airlines jet in Queens that killed 265 people, “I’d thought I’d seen it all, until this year,” Hudak tells PEOPLE.
“What we’re seeing now is off the charts,” he says. “We went through like 30 calls where you’re losing, like, every person. You’re wishing you could do more. This virus is taking its toll.”
Infection and death have hit the department too, with 10 staff members dead as of April 27 from COVID-19, including four EMTs, and 508 on medical leave with diagnosed cases. Hudak’s girlfriend has asthma, and as a result he hasn’t gone home in five weeks, staying in a hotel made available to first responders. His days — normally 12-hour shifts, three days on, two off — have stretched to 16-hour shifts six days a week.
“You can’t see the enemy,” he says. “Of course I’m scared.”
But from all over the city he can hear the 7 p.m. nightly cacophony of cheers and pot-banging from residents honoring those on the front lines, and it lifts him.
“It’s nice,” he says. “We’re in the field of helping out people; that’s what I love about this job.”
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The past few weeks have transformed the way Nia McGuire views her five-hour shifts at the Delmar Market in upstate New York.
“At first I was going into work because I needed to get out of my house,” recalls McGuire, who spent 14 days in quarantine in mid-March after returning home from a school trip to Spain. “But before too long people started thanking me and telling me how grateful they were for me being here — and I realized what I was doing was really important.”
Watching the hundreds of customers who frequent the market each day, McGuire worries about who might be sick and infecting other shoppers — and whether she might bring the virus home to her own family as a result of her work.
“I always try and wipe down everything in between customers,” says the high school junior, who’s grateful that most shoppers take the necessary precautions.
“Customers stay pretty far back, and they have masks on,” she says. “But even if someone’s just leaning on the wall, after they leave I wipe that down too.”
For more heroes helping to fight coronavirus across the nation, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.
It’s been weeks since Kathy Heishman did her hair or put on makeup.
“I quit wasting my time,” says the nightshift manager at the 160-bed Eastbrook Center in Charleston, West Virginia.
Heishman insists that her cracked, peeling lips and the permanent indentations on her nose from wearing surgical masks and a plastic face guard are “a small price to pay” for keeping herself and her patients safe.
In recent weeks, as a handful of her coworkers, along with some patients, have tested positive for COVID-19, she has become more vigilant than ever, donning a protective jumpsuit while working — and downing bottles of Gatorade to keep from overheating while wearing it.
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At home Heishman depends on family members to drop off food, medicine and anything else she needs by her front door.
“I wave at them through the glass and wonder if I’ll ever be able to hug them again.”
She knows her community appreciates her work.
“Strangers come up and tell me, ‘Thank you,’ ” she says. “But I’m just doing my job. That’s what medical personnel do. We respond to crises, and this is no different.”
With reporting by DIANE HERBST, SUSAN YOUNG and ANDREA BILLUPS.
As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a GoFundMe.org fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.