Samantha Coccia wasn’t wearing a mask although her patient was coughing and had a low fever. It was March, and the hospital where she worked was being selective about who could use masks because they were in short supply. A few days later, the nurse got a call. She might have COVID-19, the caller said, she should quarantine for almost three weeks.
“I don’t know why I was so surprised, but I didn’t think they were gonna say that because I felt fine,” she recalls. “They’re like, ‘Were you within six feet of the patient?’ Like, of course. How am I gonna do anything six feet away from the patient?”
Though a study by the Pew Research Center says young people have been disproportionately affected by virus-related layoffs, many of them in South Florida continued working.
And whether they are medical workers, do carry-out at a grocery store or hold public office, that involves putting themselves at risk of catching the virus.
Coccia is a nurse at Boca Raton Regional Hospital. The 23-year-old says nursing school didn’t prepare her for this.
“They talked about end-of-life care, but not really like when it’s sudden,” she says. “I was not ready for that.”
Back at work, she wears a reusable rubber mask that looks similar to a gas mask along with a plastic bodysuit and gloves. Sometimes she puts on goggles. She’s noticing a disconnect between herself and the patients.
“You wear a mask and gown, and it’s like you’re looking at me, but you’re not even seeing me. You’re just seeing this big intimidating mask,” she says.
Coccia has been leaning on senior staff for advice but says she’s pretty calm, at least when she is away from work.
“I like cooking dinners,” she says “It’s like the highlight of my day. I also play Animal Crossings.”
The calm feeling isn’t rare for young people.
Jesse Fraga started working at Publix in Cooper City not long ago. Many of the company’s employees around the state have tested positive for the virus. For Fraga, who bags and retrieves carts from the parking lot, the pay outweighs the risk.
“Obviously, I’m kind of scared to go out in public,” he said. “But I don’t want to have to go back to school …again with no money.”
Fraga is 19 years old, and this is one of his first jobs. He says the virus wasn’t one of his top concerns when he started working at the supermarket.
“The worries about catching corona and being around people were like the least of my worries on the first day,” he says. “I was more worried about the general first-day-on-the-job kinda things. I’m trans so I use pronouns that were not given to me at birth, and I thought that would be an issue. But Publix was like super-welcoming.”
He says customers have been friendly for the most part, but it can be jarring when shoppers are hyper-aware of catching the virus.
“There are so many people literally just eyeing you the whole time to make sure that you’re keeping a distance from other people and keeping your mask on,” he says.
Supermarkets are one of the few industries that haven’t felt significant economic pressure from COVID shutdowns. Another is food delivery.
Chris Blanco delivers for a company called Bite Squad. The 22-year-old says he expected business to improve as more restaurants went delivery-only.
“When all this started happening I was like, ‘Oh like delivery is going to be booming because everybody’s gonna want delivery,” he said.
That wasn’t the case.
Blanco says restaurants were overwhelmed with orders, and it slowed down the pickup process. Sometimes he only makes one delivery an hour, which cuts into his earnings.
Deliveries are pretty safe for him, though. He rarely comes into contact with customers.
“Most people would just like the driver to leave the food on like a rocking chair or table outside of the porch, and I find that that’s better for me,” he said.
Blanco enjoys other aspects of quarantine life. “I feel like I have more time to focus on myself and read all the books that I would like to read and learn about all the things that I want to do — go on runs and see my girlfriend every single day.”
Others are also trying to see the bright side of a virus that has given people so much to mourn. Angel Algarin is in the third year of getting his PhD in epidemiology from Florida International University.
He seized an opportunity to do some fieldwork when the virus hit.
He worked with other graduate students at a Broward County Health Department call center screening patients and setting up testing appointments.
“The three main symptoms that we asked people about were shortness of breath, cough and fever,” he said. “At first it was a little bit intimidating because we’re just upcoming professionals. But then it became less and less intimidating after every call because you learn something.”
Algarin had to learn to be patient and caring.
“Sometimes people were just getting frustrated just because they’re anxious and they’re scared,” he said.
Talking to scared residents is something that Sabrina Javellana has been doing for almost two years.
She’s the vice mayor of Hallandale Beach, and at 22 years old, she says she reaches a different demographic than her fellow council members.
“People who are incarcerated, the people who are undocumented, the crew members on those ships. That’s where I’ve kind of found my voice during this pandemic to advocate for those folks,” she said.
She constantly posts updates on her social media. She says it’s the best way to keep younger people informed. It’s also a way for her to communicate with young residents. Many have lost jobs.
“A lot of them were like providers at their household,” she said. “They helped supplement the family income to pay some of the bills. And some of their families are strapped for cash right now because most of their parents have also lost their jobs.”