For the past few weeks, Matt Klapper has spent his days as Sen. Cory Booker’s chief of staff, wrangling with congressional aides over benefits for emergency medical technicians.
At night, he strapped on his own mask and isolation gown — the same kind he’s trying to secure in the millions for first responders.
As Washington grapples with the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, Klapper is the rare political operative in the room — and the ambulance — where it happens. An aide to Booker since the New Jersey senator’s days as a city councilman, he’s also a former professional firefighter and a former crew chief for an ambulance squad in Springfield, a northern New Jersey town caught in the wave of coronavirus-stricken New York City. When the New Jersey governor called on retired and inactive medical professionals to return to their former work in March, Klapper answered the call — while keeping his day job in Congress.
For Klapper, 37, working in the midst of a pandemic took on a strange, largely sleepless rhythm. Days were spent navigating constituent requests, the federal needs of his hard-hit state and a flood of new legislation in Washington, as well as helping manage an office that, like so many, made the difficult transition to all-remote work. At night, he disinfected ambulances with hand wipes, answered emergency calls and tracked patient data. In free moments, he borrowed an EMS truck to pick up groceries for his parents and join his family for dinner — eating out on the deck, with a glass window between them.
Even as states continue to lift restrictions that were meant to slow the virus, the country remains in the grip of the disease, facing economic and health effects that will linger for years. On the front lines of that fight are health care workers, dependent on the government to protect not only their jobs but also their safety and that of their families.
Klapper is the rare policymaker who has lived in both those worlds.
“The most impactful thing of having these dual experiences was just seeing the expanse of how this virus is hurting people,” he said. “There are millions of first responders who are going to be answering these calls for months, if not longer. This is something that doesn’t stop at the door of work. It is going to come home.”
Union County, where Springfield is, has one of the highest rates of infection in the country, above those of New York City and New Orleans on a per-capita basis. In Springfield and the surrounding towns, calls that once took 45 minutes now often take hours, between disinfecting the ambulance, waiting at the overcrowded hospital and putting on all the protective gear. Many EMS workers have been infected, taking them out of work. Others can’t risk exposure for themselves or family members vulnerable to the disease.
The need for medical workers grew so severe that Gov. Philip Murphy of New Jersey requested 100 ambulances from across the country to help, along with former medical professionals to join the effort. Klapper returned and, wanting to avoid infecting his parents, wife and 17-month-old son, moved into a high school friend’s pool house.
“The call volume had spiked so high, and the staff is what the staff is; there’s no magic potion that creates more EMS providers for you,” said Mike Bascom, the EMS task force leader in New Jersey. “Matt felt a sense of duty to come back and help.”
Almost immediately, Klapper said, his days and nights became consumed with the virus.
Before his first EMT shift in early April, he spent the day with the governor, Booker, the superintendent of the New Jersey State Police and the state health commissioner as they met — masked, of course — for a video conference with Vice President Mike Pence. That night Klapper drove an ambulance to his first coronavirus call.
“Matt came back and his attitude was that ‘Since I can only help you for a few weeks, just run me into the ground,’” said Apu Mullick, the chief of the Springfield First Aid Squad, who said Klapper was on duty for about 60 hours a week, largely overnight. “He made a tremendous difference. We never had to rely on outside help.”
Klapper’s double life involved a few, admittedly minor, sacrifices for Booker, as well. On several occasions, Klapper hung up on his boss to answer a literal — rather than their more typical political — emergency.
“You heard about him playing the, ‘Oh Cory, I can’t talk to you right now because I’m saving lives,” Booker said with a laugh. “How many times is he going to use that card on me?”
Klapper is, perhaps, a good fit for Booker — a professional rescuer working for a politician known for his dramatic and much-chronicled rescues.
During Booker’s action hero-like pursuits as the mayor of Newark, like when he saved a neighbor from a house fire or helped a pedestrian hit by a car, Klapper sometimes managed the actual emergency.
Several years ago, when Booker came across a car crash on the Garden State Parkway and jumped out to help, Klapper followed. At one point, Booker said, he grew nervous as the car filled with smoke.
“I’m not going to stay here if this thing blows up,” Booker recalled telling Klapper, who was working to stabilize the driver. “And he tells me, ‘Cory, that’s dust from the air bag.’”
In Washington, with Booker more confined to the halls of the Capitol, the press-shy Klapper has kept his emergency responder experience mostly private, according to those who’ve worked with him.
“Someone with his chops, especially in Washington, who does something like that — you would expect them to work it into every other sentence, and he just doesn’t do that,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, who called Klapper “a genuine mensch.”
Booker said Klapper’s experience enriched his response to the virus.
When Booker sent out a letter asking for more masks and gloves, Klapper added a request for isolation gowns as he watched his squad source small orders of equipment from across the globe. In discussions with the state health commissioner, he flagged how the long wait times at hospitals left EMTs sitting in closed ambulances with coronavirus patients for hours, increasing their exposure.
This week, his office introduced a bill with Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, amending federal law to make emergency medical workers who contract the coronavirus eligible for the same death benefits as those who die in the line of duty.
The fire platoon and emergency squad, Klapper said, are “my family” — friends who saw him grow up, stood together in deadly situations and even signed him up for the online dating site where he eventually met his wife.
“These are folks I’ve known for decades and I could not have more respect or love for,” he said. “It was a time of need for them. If it was going to be helpful for them, I wanted to be there.”
Booker, too, is a kind of family to Klapper.
“I consider him a real soul connection because he has always been like Jiminy Cricket to me — he’s always been there in my life to remind me of the values at both our cores,” said Booker, who added that Klapper was his first phone call in the morning and his last before bed.
Klapper met Booker at an assembly at his high school to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., impressing the politician, then a city councilman, with a documentary about the civil rights hero. Around that time, Klapper also applied to join the ambulance squad, a dream since he was a boy obsessed with firetrucks and ambulances.
In college, he worked for Booker and trained as a firefighter during the summers. During law school at Yale, he commuted home to volunteer for the fire crew and helped Booker navigate a fiscal crisis. After graduating, he returned to City Hall in Newark as Booker’s chief policy adviser and, having been hired into a full-time position, became a professional firefighter. With Newark in the midst of deep budget cuts, he drew no salary from the city, supporting himself as a firefighter through a part-time job at the Brookings Institution, a think tank.
After Booker was elected to the Senate in 2013, Klapper moved to Washington to help with the demanding needs of setting up a new Senate office. When Booker announced his presidential campaign last year, Klapper moved back to Newark to serve as a senior adviser.
With virus cases beginning to fall in the state, Klapper is wrapping up his time with the squad, quarantining for two weeks before rejoining his family and returning to Washington, where the Senate has returned to session.
“I’m still going through my day thinking about what is sitting on surfaces inside the squad house, what I’m tracking into the house I’m staying in,” Klapper said. “I have a much more expansive view of how this is going to rip through the ranks of emergency services.”