The term “frontline workers” evokes images of doctors and nurses in protective gear during the pandemic, but during the first months of the outbreak, police officers found themselves on the front lines, too.
Officer Wendell Kornegay now struggles with the trauma brought on by serving during the COVID–19 lockdown in New York City.
Kornegay, 53, a native of North Carolina, has served with the NYPD for 30 years; he attributes his decision to join the force to his father, an airline mechanic with the New York Police Department.
Kornegay is attached to the department’s Strategic Unit, which spent the lockdown last spring patrolling the streets, enforcing Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s order that residents wear masks in public, and performing other COVID-related tasks.
‘’It was a whirlwind, absolutely,” Kornegay said in a phone interview. He felt unprepared “to do what we were dealing with regarding COVID-19. It was something beyond our control, but we had to adjust and try to make the best of the situation we were dealing with mentally’.’
At the height of the outbreak and the Black Lives Matter protests in April and May, the NYPD was overwhelmed, said Kornegay, who is Black. His unit was assigned to help a Brooklyn precinct handle emergencies, including barricading buildings, managing crowds and helping emotionally distressed people who needed medical attention.
It was a nightmare, he recalled.
Once-crowded New York became a ghost town during the lockdown, contributing to Kornegay’s anxiety. When everyone else was sheltering in place, he had to show up on the streets and respond to crises with scant regard for his own safety.
‘’People would call in every day with emergencies; the force was overwhelmed,’’ he said.
While he grappled with that stress, his wife, Mellisa Renneau, 38, tested positive for the virus. This was his breaking point, Kornegay said. He had to choose between staying home to help his wife and showing up for others contending with the same illness.
‘’When my wife got sick, my daughter and I were in the same house,” he said. Neither tested positive, but he stayed home to quarantine with his wife.
‘’Thank God I was there at home to care for her,” he said. “It’s something you wouldn’t want to go through alone. It was very overwhelming.
“I did not know what to do if I got sick also. We did not know what we were dealing with. It was a very challenging experience that I was exposed to. I’d never want to go through the same thing, ever again,’’ he added.
After 14 days with no symptoms, Kornegay returned to work managing the Black Lives Matter protests. Some protesters were not wearing masks, triggering his fear of catching the virus.
‘I knew I had to be strong. I had to keep my spirit up. I had to keep going, and I had to adapt and adjust to everything – not only for my family but for the rest of the people who were relying on me as a frontline worker,’’ he said, his voice breaking. He described the scene as “a Hollywood movie with us in protective gear, while many rioters wore no masks.”
Police have come under intense criticism from some Americans during the pandemic for their attitudes about racism and their brutal behavior towards Black people. Several shootings of unarmed black men and the death of George Floyd in police custody on May 25 left many questioning the criminal justice system and sparked days of protests across New York City.
Asked about the police response, Kornegay declined to address those issues, saying his superiors had forbidden further comment.
Maureen Allwood, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says a lot of New York police officers, before and after the lockdown, experienced stigma about mental health.
‘’Given the increased exposure to trauma, a big percentage of police officers did not seek professional help because they were the first responders to incidents involving individuals with a mental breakdown due to the pandemic,” she said. “It was hard.’’
Allwood encouraged officers to seek professional help when faced with such adversity, to curb the post-traumatic stress response and protect their well-being.
James Jackson Christopher, a retired US Marine, said it was tough to see Kornegay, his Brooklyn neighbor and friend for over 20 years, go through such a trying situation. .
‘’I saw my friend at his lowest, but he decided to keep a positive attitude throughout. At some point we would sit on our porches just to assess the situation,” Christopher recalled. “I had to be there for him and support him emotionally.’’
When the pandemic subsided, Kornegay was redeployed to his normal duties of policing and managing crowds.
The NYPD acknowledges the challenges associated with policing during the lockdown. On its website, the department notes that 1400 uniformed officers have contracted COVID-19 . Department spokesmen did not respond a request for an interview.
(Photo courtesy of Wendell Kornegay)