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An overlooked group of people uniquely vulnerable to COVID-19: Our 9/11 heroes

Thousands of first responders and survivors suffering long-term health effects caused by exposure to Ground Zero toxins are some of the most vulnerable to the virus.

APOLLO BEACH, Fla. — Jeffrey Conti was deployed for 48 straight hours at Ground Zero immediately following the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

He was one of the thousands of first responders who risked their lives and health, breathing in toxins from the building materials, microscopic shards of glass and asbestos at the site of the collapsed twin towers.

Nearly two decades later, Conti and other 9/11 heroes and survivors face a new risk from underlying health issues caused by their exposure: COVID-19.

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, those with lung diseases—like COPD or asthma—or weakened immune systems caused by cancer are at greatest risk of complications from the coronavirus.

More than 70 cancers are on the list of 9/11-related illnesses identified by the federal government.

“It has changed my life drastically,” Conti said. “I wound up finding out that I had a form of COPD, I wound up having asthma.”

Conti says he’s lost roughly 70 percent of his lung capacity. He was warned by doctors he could face more underlying health conditions as time passed.

“Just as the pandemic broke out, I was diagnosed with throat cancer,” Conti said via Zoom from his Apollo Beach home, where he’s been locked down—with the exception of doctor’s visits for radiation and chemotherapy—since March.

“My immune system is zero.”

With his 16-year-old son working at a grocery store and his wife soon to return to her job as a teacher, he worries he’s still at risk for COVID-19 even while staying home, especially as cases in Florida continue to climb. 

RELATED: Florida coronavirus cases, deaths, hospitalizations, recoveries

“Between the cancer and the asthma treatment I am super high risk,” he said. “Coming from a job where you put people before yourself, I find it mind-boggling that people tend to be selfish about this—putting on a mask is such a simple thing.”

Attorney Michael Barasch, a managing partner of the Barasch McGarry law firm, represents more than 20,000 9/11 responders and survivors nationwide who have become sick as a result of exposure to Ground Zero toxins. More than 1,500 of his clients, he said, live in Florida where COVID-19 cases have been climbing for weeks.

“All the cops, firefighters, sanitation workers, office workers, teachers—and now they are particularly at risk,” Barasch said.

“At risk not only of getting the coronavirus, at risk of dying from the coronavirus.”

RELATED: Florida lawmaker to file lawsuit against Pinellas County mask mandate

Barasch said more than a dozen of his clients living in Florida have died from COVID-19 complications. As cases climb in Florida and some people fight against mask mandates, he says he worries for a community of people who’ve already endured tragedy.

“These guys were there to protect us, we now have to protect them,” he said.

The World Trade Center Health Program, created by the federal government, provides screenings and treatment specifically for 9/11 survivors. Of the nearly 100,000 enrolled, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about half have a 9/11-related illness.

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