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Tenants plan suit against NYCHA officials for coronavirus response


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Distraught public housing residents plan to sue the New York City Housing Authority after 1241 tenants died of COVID-19 and thousands more were sickened because the buildings were not properly sanitized, their lawyer said Friday.

“These are the people who need to be protected the most and when you talk about the government’s function to protect the most vulnerable, obviously here that wasn’t done,” said attorney Robert Vilensky, who is currently representing 20 claimants who hope to file a class action suit against the city and the New York Housing Authority.

The tenants are seeking $5 billion in compensation, including for medical conditions and complications, medical expenses, loss of earnings and funeral expenses for those who died.

“The number is just to send a message to the city,” said Vilensky, after filing a notice of claim this week. “Why is it that NYCHA buildings have a significantly higher percentage of people who develop COVID and die than the rest of the city.”

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The health department said over 6000 NYCHA tenants have been infected with the virus.

NYCHA employees allowed the virus to spread by failing to enforce social distancing guidelines while also neglecting to disinfect commonly touched surfaces such as doorknobs, mailboxes, handrails and staircases, according to the claim.

Mitchel Houses resident Ariel Brito was left fighting for his life at New York Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan after catching the virus in late March.

The 28-year-old was placed in a medically induced coma on March 27 and was hooked up to a ventilator for over a month.

“Doctors said I was a miracle because a lot of people don’t make it out of the ventilator,” said the Bronx resident, who is named in the claim. “ I don’t remember them putting me to sleep. All I remember was waking up on my own power and it was May 2.”

After a six-week hospital stay, Brito was transferred to a rehab center for an additional two weeks, where he had to learn to walk again.

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“I was really weak. I lost 45 pounds after I left the ICU. I had no strength. They even had to help me eat.”

Brito believes NYCHA didn’t take the crisis seriously and didn’t follow proper disinfecting techniques.

Mitchel Houses in the Bronx
Mitchel Houses in the BronxGoogle Maps

“It’s always been filthy in here. Nobody was protected,” he said.

Hector Vasquez believes he caught the contagion along with his wife and son in the Manhattanville Houses on Amsterdam Avenue, where he’s resided for 20 years.

His wife and their 20-year-old son recovered at home but Vasquez, who suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, heart failure and vascular disease, was hit hard on May 8.

“I had chills, diarrhea, fever, I couldn’t eat. I had trouble breathing. I really felt like I was going to die,” the 59-year-old said. His primary doctor prescribed antibiotics that failed to ease his symptoms.

“I almost died in my house but called the ambulance. I didn’t know if I would make it.” Vasquez landed in the ER room at Mount Sinai Hospital on May 15.

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“I got six liters of oxygen in the hospital along with T-cells and other treatment,” Vasquez said.  “I had a lot of friends praying for me. I feel lucky I made it.”

The housing agency allegedly did not have any plans for managing crowds while hundreds of people walked in and out of the building, Vasquez said.

“I hold NYCHA accountable,” he said.

Awilda Cordero said she fell ill in mid-March after visiting the Mitchell Houses Senior Center on Lincoln Avenue in the Bronx.

Cordero, who runs a community services organization, had been monitoring her 79-year-old uncle’s apartment, after he had transferred to a rehab center for another medical condition in February.

“There were signs of rats everywhere. The elevator was always dirty,” the 57-year-old said.

She tested positive for the virus and was treated with intravenous antibiotics as an outpatient.

NYCHA did not immediately return a request for comment.

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