Dressed in a medical gown, mask and face shield, Stratis Morfogen had poked his head into his 14-year-old daughter’s bedroom to check on her — when he saw tears streaming down her face.
By way of explanation, she simply handed him her phone.
“F you, Bea! I have to quarantine because of you,” one TikTok user wrote. “Bea this is your fault!” another said on Instagram.
And then came the comment section — brutal, relentless finger-pointing at the Southampton eighth-grader who had tested positive for COVID-19 less than two days earlier and complied with contact tracing.
“The first week was the hardest — just a lot of people talking behind my back was the majority of what was happening, when it came to kids. I felt really alone,” Bea recalled last week, about a month after the ordeal. “But adults were also very angry about it, too. People were just really angry.”
At the height of the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention anticipated the backlash that some children, and their families, would face following a COVID-19 diagnosis, fueling a stigma that could have long-term effects on those already struggling with the anxiety of having the virus, let alone the overall fallout from the pandemic.
In the case of the Morfogens, the contact tracer even warned them as such.
“He said, ‘It’s really difficult, with this age group, to get cooperation with the parents. They feel like it’s some kind of scarlet letter, where the kids will be tortured or bullied or cyberbullied,’” Mr. Morfogen said. “I laughed it off, because I said, ‘That’s ludicrous, that’s unbelievable, that’s so irresponsible.’
“And then I got my lesson within 48 hours.”
It was Friday, November 20, when Bea visited the doctor with nasal pain, prompting him to order a strep test and a COVID-19 test. She was due for the latter anyway, explained Mr. Morfogen, a restaurateur whose empire includes Brooklyn Chop House and Brooklyn Dumpling Shop. Monthly testing is a routine safety protocol not only for his entire staff but also his immediate family, he said.
So when the strep test was negative, and she showed no traditional signs of coronavirus, the doctor gave Bea the go-ahead for a night of ice skating with her friends.
Three days later, she learned the test result was positive for COVID-19.
“We were really shocked, because she, out of all of us, she won’t even walk the dog down a rural street without a mask on,” Mr. Morfogen said. “She was shocked, hysterically crying. It was a whole shock to her system. She was saying, ‘Am I gonna die? What’s gonna happen to me?’”
After confirming the positive result at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, the family received a call from the State Department of Health, asking if Bea would participate in contact tracing — to which she, without question, agreed, as did her father.
Together, they spent three hours giving out the phone numbers of people who could have been in contact with Bea and the three friends who rode in the car with her to and from skate night — all of whom tested negative, Mr. Morfogen said.
The total number came out to be 30 to 40 individuals, which surprised the contact tracer.
“By the third hour, [he] said something very alarming to me,” Mr. Morfogen said. “He said, ‘I’ve just gotta tell you, you and your daughter, I’ve never seen anything like this.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said, ‘We’ve never had this kind of cooperation.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean? I don’t understand what that means.’ And he goes, ‘Especially with this age group of sixth grade to 10th grade, when we contact parents after the kid tests positive, they don’t even return our phone calls. And even when we get them on the phone, they say that they don’t want to cooperate.’”
While this particular contact tracer called the Morfogen family an anomaly, Jill Montag, a public information officer for the State Department of Health, said that while there are anecdotal reports of people not complying, the “vast majority” of New Yorkers have.
“They want to do the right thing and help slow the spread of COVID-19 in New York State,” she said. “In fact, New York State’s contact tracers have proven to be extremely effective, reaching more than 80 percent of all cases. And while we can’t discuss any specific situation due to confidentiality, bullying in any context — and for any reason — is certainly unacceptable.”
Mr. Morfogen wasted no time in contacting the parents of some of the children who made hateful comments about his daughter. One mother called him to apologize, he said, while another couple — whose daughter tested positive but was nowhere near Bea during skate night, he said — took the opposite approach.
The father reached out first via text and, after a bit of back and forth, the conversation escalated.
“He said, ‘My wife had a [recent surgery] and she’s home now. If anything happens to her, it’s on you and your daughter.’ And I said, ‘Excuse me? Do me a favor. F— off.’ That was just it. That’s where he crossed the line.”
The mother reached out next: “What you did to us is a disgrace and irresponsible,” Mr. Morfogen said, paraphrasing her words. “Shame on you because sometimes your reckless actions cause danger to people you don’t even know.”
By this point, Bea was handling the aftermath better than her father, he admitted. “I’ve gotta tell you, the bullying was worse than the virus,” he said. “I made it very clear, ‘You want to go to war with me? Let’s go to war, because I’m telling you right now, you and your child are not gonna bully my daughter — and make sure all the parents know that. You’re picking a fight with the wrong guy.’
“So I’m getting bullied, my daughter’s getting bullied, and this is all by Wednesday.”
As Bea rode out the worst of the bullying and the virus, Mr. Morfogen, his wife and their youngest daughter never caught COVID-19, taking every precaution when they visited her upstairs in quarantine — offering her physical and emotional support in any way they could.
“I realized that some of these parents may be smarter than me, because by avoiding it and not cooperating and not putting the scarlet ‘C’ on their children’s chests, their kids wouldn’t have been bullied like my daughter,” Mr. Morfogen said. “Thank God, Bea’s strong enough to handle it.
“You know what some kids do with cyberbullying — it can cause depression and suicide. And then you have COVID on top of it,” he continued. “It’s a very dangerous combination. That’s gonna draw kids over the edge. They think they’re fighting for their life, and now they’re dealing with cyberbullying? I’ve never seen this before.”
He let out a deep sigh. “It’s hard to say it, but, really, Bea was the right person to get it, because she could handle it, and she did something really great about it. She helped get the word out. I couldn’t be more proud of her.”
Turning her pain into positivity, Bea — who has made a full recovery, but is still dealing with some side effects — started a new Instagram account, “virusisourenemy,” which will serve as a safe space for children to come together and express their anxieties about COVID-19 and contact tracing, a place free from cyberbullying.
So far, she has messaged with about 30 peers across the Northeast — some as far away as Chicago and even Canada.
“You honestly aren’t alone,” Bea said. “As long as you know you’re doing the right thing on the inside, then you’re fine and the right people will be by your side.”
Contributed to first place Writer of the Year award, New York Press Association, 2020
Judge’s comments: “This writer handled a diverse set of topics beautifully, mixing an investigative approach with rich storytelling and a human touch to produce in-depth news features with high community impact and interest. The writer understands that all great stories, though built on solid foundational facts and data, are about people’s experiences – their joys and sorrows, their fears and triumphs.”
As published in the Southampton Press