As the Seattle area emerged as an epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the US at the end of February, Jennifer Lee volunteered to work on the front lines, going into crowded shelters and nursing facilities to help test patients for COVID-19.
But since last week, after losing her health insurance and job at a nonprofit because of funding cuts related to the pandemic, Lee is growing increasingly worried about the costs her family could be stuck with if she gets sick.
"The bills to cover even one day of ICU care would force me to take out a loan," Lee, 25, told BuzzFeed News Monday. "And if I die, those bills go on to my family. That's what concerns me most. I don't want to leave my family with massive debt."
As the number of people being hospitalized for COVID-19 increases across the country, volunteers and retired health care workers are suiting up, putting their lives and their loved ones at risk while they help their communities. For Lee, a former EMT who has been volunteering with the King County Public Health Reserve Corps, the decision to volunteer has become complicated by the fact that she no longer has income or insurance. She also lives with her mother, a retired emergency room physician who has also volunteered on the front lines.
"She’s going out and volunteering and has the potential to bring back the virus to me, who’s uninsured, and I have the potential to go out and bring back the virus to her," Lee said.
After graduating from the University of Alabama in 2016, Lee worked as an EMT in Everett, Washington, before going back to school for a graduate degree. She currently lives in Seattle with her mom, Dr. Marni Bonnin, and up until last Monday she was working as a campaign specialist for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
"It's not their fault. They were phenomenal, honestly, but specifically like my campaign that we were running was supposed to bring in $6 million, and our event had to be canceled of course," Lee said.
She immediately applied for dozens of jobs and received an offer to care for COVID-19 patients at a local hospital, but she turned it down after learning health insurance coverage wouldn't kick in for 60 days.
Now, she's looking for another job — really any job — that will provide health insurance at once and allow her to continue volunteering in the fight against the coronavirus.
"If I don't, who else is going to?" Lee said. "The other people on my team, they’re doing the best that they can, but several of them are in the high-risk area, you know, they’re former retired nurses, they’re over 60. I’d rather put myself at risk than ask one of them to put themselves at risk."
Even though she is young and healthy, Lee does worry about contracting COVID-19 while in the field. Like many health care workers across the country, Lee has to wear one set of personal protective gear throughout each shift because of a lack of supplies, despite health guidelines that under normal situations dictate workers don new, unused gloves, masks, and gowns for each patient they treat.
"They’re breathing on me, they're coughing on me, they’re sneezing on me," Lee said. "If I touch my visor and forget about it and then touch my hair and then later touch my hair and touch my face, now I’ve given myself COVID-19. But, in addition to that, my gown is brushing up against each and every single patient, and so someone coughs on me who has it and then I go to swab the next patient who doesn't have it, well, I may have now just given it to him."
Due to her age, Bonnin, who is 62, recently decided to stop volunteering in person unless more help is needed. Instead, she's going to help with the telemedicine side of the response.
"I have been chomping at the bit to get out there and help, and yet also a bit fearful, since I am over 60, of getting the virus," said Bonnin, who retired in 2014. "I felt that it was not the best use of my time and my experience to possibly expose myself for something that someone else could do."
Still, she does worry that her daughter could get sick — particularly since she lost her insurance.
"That I am terrified about — and not really terrified as much as angry," Bonnin said. "I find the entire American health system being based on employment absurd, and the fact that we have so many uninsured and underinsured is just a travesty. If this is not a push toward universal health care, I don't know what is."
The reality of the situation has prompted Lee to plan for difficult contingencies. If she does fall ill to the point where she needs a ventilator to breathe for her, she wouldn't want those measures taken to keep her alive.
"If I get sick, I get sick, but if I get sick and need intervention each of those interventions starts to add up ... and so without insurance, it would bankrupt my family," she said.
As they continue to deal with the personal impacts of the pandemic on their family, Bonnin and Lee called on others to do what they can to help curb the spread of the disease, whether that means staying home or volunteering in their own way.
"A lot of people are sitting at home and feeling stuck or feeling bored ... but they could be out there volunteering if they really wanted to, and if they're healthy," Lee said. "If you're just someone sitting at home saying, 'This sucks. I wish I was at the beach,' you know, do something to help the rest of your community because we need it — we really do."