In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, New York City hospitals were America’s canaries in the coal mine. Doctors and nurses first saw patients sick with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel virus, filling their emergency departments and intensive care units in March.
Kious Jordan Kelly, a 48-year-old nursing manager, was there on the front lines when patients started to stream in to Mount Sinai West, the Manhattan hospital where he worked.
As his back-to-back shifts stacked up, Kelly continued to bring the same care and empathy to the job that had inspired one man to write the hospital system earlier this year after his mother had died to hail Kelly an “angel” and praise the way he “went above and beyond” and “showed my mom and us empathy and compassion that helped us get through the weekend and what was to come.”
Out on the Frontline: Kious Kelly is one of NBC Out's 2020 Pride Month honorees. To see the full list, click here.
But working in a New York City hospital in early 2020 was rife with unseen risks, including patients with unconfirmed coronavirus cases and what seemed like endless testing delays. Kelly fell ill and was admitted as a patient to the hospital where he worked on March 17. His sister, Marya Sherron, said Kelly sent her a heartbreaking text before his death: “Can’t talk because I choke and can’t breathe. I love you. Going back to sleep.”
While in the hospital, Kelly’s condition quickly worsened. The day after he checked in, he was put on a ventilator. At that time, New York City’s bars and restaurants had been shuttered for just one day, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo was disagreeing with New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio over De Blasio’s use of the phrase “shelter in place.” Six days later, on March 24, Kelly died.
While Kelly did have severe asthma, the sudden and dramatic deterioration in his condition — from a relatively healthy, 48-year-old former dancer working back-to-back nursing shifts in early March to dying later that month — highlighted the brutal speed of the virus and helped shine an early light on a deadly reality in the city’s hospitals, where shortages of personal protective equipment were widely reported.
Sherron, who lives in Indianapolis, said that soon after her brother died she navigated to his Facebook page. What she saw shocked her: She said many of Kelly’s Mount Sinai colleagues were blaming the hospital for what happened to him. She reached out to them for more information.
“They confirmed that they had all of the PPE locked up from them, that you only got a certain amount per shift and that it was not in accordance with proper use,” Sherron told NBC News. ”You have these directors and owners making all kinds of money, but not providing basic supplies … not to mention, patients don’t know that when people are coming in and out of their rooms are reusing dressings.”
Enraged Mount Sinai employees continued to speak to news outlets to share what they claimed were chronic PPE shortages and rationing at one of New York City’s premier hospital systems. Images of the hospital’s nurses using trash bags to cover up permeable PPE went viral. Sherron said those viral images, while unrelated to her brother’s death, catapulted his story around a weary world trying to learn anything about a new virus.
For its part, Mount Sinai denied the allegations that staff had insufficient PPE.
In mid-May, Sherron wrote on her blog that she would now fight for a law that would shut hospitals down if they failed to properly protect workers during an infectious disease outbreak.
“While some of my fellow Michiganders (a small number) stormed the capitol toting guns, Confederate Flags, and nooses (shockingly, in the name of God), I choose to fight for the protection of my brothers and sisters who serve in the hospitals and nursing homes,” Sherron, who is from Michigan, wrote. “I will protest the failure in leadership by calling for responsible change. I will advocate for their rights and the honor of those who serve our country in our hour of need. I will fight for the voiceless who demonstrate their loyalty by showing-up to work, day after day regardless of unimaginable circumstances.”
“I will fight for the Kious Kelly Protection for Healthcare Workers Act,” Sherron wrote, “and I intend to win.”
Sherron told NBC News she is now in consultation with a lawyer to draft proposed legislation and plans to advocate on behalf of a simple bill in her brother’s name that would make PPE provisions a requirement for hospitals to operate.
“The idea moving forward is that no hospital or health care facility would ever be in this situation again,” she said, “nor would health care workers be asked to see a patient without the protective gear.”
The last time Sherron saw her brother was over the Christmas holiday, and she recalled thinking on her trip home, “He’s never been better.”
Though she said at one point in his life he struggled with his identity as a biracial gay man, “I thought, ‘He’s not in bondage to whoever will and will not accept him,’” she said of the last time she saw her brother. “He loved himself in a way so that he could love others, and I’m so proud of him.”