For many, the global shutdown triggered by the novel coronavirus pandemic has felt a bit like some cosmic force on high has pushed a gigantic “pause” button on the year 2020. With millions unemployed, schedules tossed out the window and nearly all events abruptly canceled, many U.S. citizens have had the unusual experience of staying home, filling their time with new hobbies, long walks, or catching up on projects as days stretched into weeks, and weeks into months.
For those within a few select professions however — medical personnel, grocery store workers, postal clerks — there was no such delay. When the pandemic hit, these essential workers not only kept working, often at heightened risk of contracting the virus, but in many cases increased their hours to make sure communities had what they needed to keep running.
It hasn’t been an easy two-and-a-half months, but they’ve shown up for their jobs and their communities day after day in spite of the risk, the fear and the challenges. Here’s what they had to say.
‘MY WHOLE WORLD CHANGED’
The story of how Paula Schiedegger came to be a nurse working at the Telluride Regional Medical Center (TMC) in the midst of a global pandemic begins with a love story.
“I’m originally from Bogotá, Colombia,” she said, “but when I was going to university in Florida, I met a very handsome boy, and he was from Ridgway, Colorado. So when we graduated, we decided to head out this way.”
Scheidegger landed a job as a medical interpreter at the med center, where she discovered a passion for medicine and for working with patients, and advanced through medical assistantship positions before returning to school in 2015 to become a nurse. Now, 13 years after she began working at the med center, she’s the practice manager of primary care, managing a team of medical professionals to provide for the primary care medical needs of the community.
These days, however, the job has become much more stressful. At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the staff of the TMC were forced to kick into overdrive to manage the public health crisis, all while operating out of a small, rural medical facility built in 1978 that was not designed for the social distancing, proper ventilation or high use demanded by a pandemic. Scheidegger found herself working 80-hour-long weeks, alongside her team in order to create entirely new systems of operation. She stayed in Telluride during the workweek to avoid the stress of late-night commutes, and the possibility of bringing the virus home each day to her husband and their 3-year-old son.
“It’s been intense,” Scheidegger said, recalling the past two-and-a-half months since the day in early March when the county’s first coronavirus case was discovered and things began shutting down. “My whole world changed. I had to make a decision that we would start seeing patients outside, wearing PPE. The initial response was ‘all hands on deck,’ so we had to cancel vacations, get extra staff, cancel all other medical appointments, create a position for a triage nurse, create an outdoor respiratory clinic. We had to change the whole workflow of what we were doing, and develop workflows to be safe and not get sick. We did the first COVID tests in the county, and it was frightening because it was so new and you felt so exposed.”
Despite so many unique challenges to navigate — such as seeing patients outside during winter conditions, protecting the privacy of patients initially being tested in the alley behind the clinic, and constantly reassessing strategies while working in an inadequate building with insufficient information on the virus — Scheidegger expressed deep gratitude for both the hardworking cadre of medical professionals at the TMC, and the support of the community at large.
“I have the best team ever. I wouldn’t be doing what I've been doing without the team here. Everyone’s helping everyone,” she said. “Our community has been so supportive, bringing us food, I mean, something as silly as not having time to eat lunch or drink water because we’re wearing masks all day. Everyone has been so supportive.”
Being on the frontlines of the medical response to a pandemic has been a rollercoaster, she said.
“I have so many mixed feelings. It’s been scary. But it’s been so good to be able to be there for my community. That’s the one thing that keeps me going, to be able to help. That’s why I became a nurse. Being able to be there, it feels good in my heart. But we’re tired. We’re scared,” she said, recalling her utter dread when her husband began coughing, and having to wait days for test results. “That feeling that you might have gotten your family sick? I don’t have words to describe that.”
Though the outside world is beginning to open up, Scheidegger doesn’t see things returning to normal in the medical world anytime soon, given the uncertainties surrounding the virus and the epidemic.
“We need to have hope and continue to reassess every step that we take,” she said. “We don’t know what the future will bring to us, but we need to be proactive.”
‘I KNOW I AM AT RISK’
In any other year, Dulce García would be back home in Peru by now, but not this year. This year, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, she was in the middle of her second winter season as a cashier at Clark’s Market in Telluride, a participant in the popular work-exchange program that grants temporary work visas to foreigners. It was a season like any other, until it wasn’t. Suddenly, García found herself in the role of “essential worker” in the hardest-hit country in the world, her visa extended by the State Department.
“I was happy that the government said that the grocery stores, the pharmacy, can still keep their doors open. These are the essential things that people need,” she said. “I know I am at risk, with everything that is happening, and when I do FaceTime with my family, they worry about me because I’m still working.” But, she said, she wanted to accept the challenge to continue working, and sent her family photos of her wearing her mask and gloves so that they could see she was taking every step to protect herself from the virus. Despite their worry, García’s family also agreed that perhaps it was best for her to remain in Telluride and continue working.
“My family told me, ‘It’s better that you stay in that town, because here in our country it’s getting worse. And you’re still working,’ my mom told me,” said García, recalling the phone conversation in which her mom told her that her brothers and father were no longer employed, and that if she kept her job she would be able to provide a source of income.
“I’m so happy to stay here,” for now, García said, explaining that she has loved her experience working at Clark’s Market and living in Telluride. “But I do miss my family, absolutely. I hope that everything turns out well and this situation finishes quickly.”
Despite the added risk of working during a pandemic, García said she has not felt afraid. As the crisis became apparent, management at the grocery store quickly implemented deep-cleaning protocols and took measures to protect employees and shoppers.
“I am with my gloves, my mask. Every 15 minutes I am washing my hands,” García said. “And everything is sanitized. So for me it feels super safe to work here.”
She said the safety measures her managers took, such as requiring employees to wear masks and gloves, installing glass barriers at cash registers, and requiring thorough disinfecting routines after closing each day, showed her how much the market’s management cared about its customers and staff.
García, who has spent her previous two university breaks in Telluride on the work-exchange program to improve her English and experience American culture, is a university student in Lima studying to become an English teacher. Living in the United States, she said, was a dream she’d cherished since her childhood days of watching scenes of American life in movies and TV shows, and she quickly fell in love with Telluride.
“I had never seen snow,” she said. “It was so impressive.” She loved the sunshine, the proximity of everything in town, people riding bicycles, the free bus, the lack of traffic and the sense of safety from crime. But mostly, she loved the friendliness and respect that she felt from the community.
“People have been so kind and friendly,” she said. “They have had a lot of patience. It's noticeable that I don't speak English fluently, but people are helpful and speak slowly because they know that I am learning. Everything that I did in my country, all the money that I saved to be here, it was all worth it. Todo valió la pena.”
‘IT WILL ALL BE OK’
When you walk into a public restroom, you don’t usually notice if the sinks are sparkling clean and the toilet paper rolls are stocked. But you certainly notice it if they aren’t. In the cleaning industry, that’s the way things are: The workers tasked with doing the difficult jobs of deep-cleaning homes, offices and public buildings are often behind the scenes, not so visible to those who rely on their services everyday.
That much, at least, has not changed during the coronavirus pandemic, with cleaners performing their jobs in empty homes and buildings to mitigate the risk of transmission. But much is also different, according to Erika Mireles, crew supervisor at Ajax Cleaning, who has worked at the company for over a decade.
“So much has changed, and it’s affected all of us who work at Ajax because we all depend on tourism for a living,” Mireles said, referring to the many contracts for cleaning vacation rentals, second homes, restaurants and other buildings that were abruptly shuttered at the onset of the pandemic. “And what’s more, especially for those of us who have kids, it changed our whole daily life routines, since our kids were not in school anymore.”
Despite the sudden drop-off in the amount of cleaning work to be done, Mireles said that she felt fortunate to have a boss who ensured that Ajax employees who did not have work continued to be paid, through the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) funds made available through the federal aid package. What little work has remained is now subject to strict disinfecting protocols, with additional safety measures to mitigate the risk of transmission.
“Now, it’s mandatory to use facemasks and gloves while on the job, and we have plastic face shields as well,” Mireles said. “We start by disinfecting all the doorknobs and the commonly touched surfaces such as computer keyboards, everything in the bathroom, everything. We are also using stronger disinfectants than before, and we even have disinfectant for the company cars when we get in and out.”
For her part, Mireles said she has learned to manage the fear and the stress of working during such a time of uncertainty and anxiety. In the beginning it was harder, and some jobs, such as cleaning the medical center, no one in the cleaning crews wanted to do.
“So I went with my boss to clean the med center, because at first nobody wanted to go there,” she said. “Cleaning at the med center is even deeper and more rigorous. Before, we didn’t use bleach there, but now we do, and the cleaning routine is even more detailed. But I actually feel that cleaning the med center is very safe, because the doctors disinfect the area around the patient after each visit. So when we show up to clean, we reinforce the cleaning,” she explained. I think the med center is actually safer than elsewhere, even though some people don’t believe me,” she added with a chuckle.
Still, it’s been a stressful couple of months, especially because, as a mother, she wondered who would care for her child if she got sick. Initially, she equated the thought of a pandemic with death and was much more afraid, but as she read and listened to information about the virus, she realized that it was more worrisome for those with compromised immune systems.
“Now, I feel that if I take the proper precautions, everything will be alright,” she said, though she noted the profound financial stress triggered by the pandemic for many in the Latinx community, who worried that they wouldn’t have enough money for food, or wondered if they should even return to their home countries. Mireles, who moved here to be with family, is originally from Mexico. With the arrival of PPP funds that stress has been alleviated somewhat, with workers able to account for the basics of food and rent.
The pandemic has shaken up a lot of things about how Mireles does her job, but now more than ever, excelling at what she does remains of great importance to her.
“When you arrive at someone’s house to clean it, they trust you, and you clean it as if it were your own house. That is what I like about it. It’s very rewarding when people thank us and see that we are doing a good job. Cleaning is a team effort, and if we all do our part, wearing facemasks, social distancing, and making sure we do our jobs well, it will all be OK.”
Editor’s note: This interview was translated from Spanish to English.
‘PEOPLE REALLY STEPPED UP’
As a teacher, it can be difficult to capture the attention of teenagers on a normal school day, let alone on a computer screen via Zoom lessons. But by mid-March after the closure of the ski resort, that’s exactly what teachers were asked to do, and they had to do it fast.
“The transition was abrupt, like everything else in March,” Engebretson, better known to his students as Mr. E, recalled. “We heard we were going online on a Friday afternoon, and each teacher had lessons rolled out by the following Tuesday. Our district was fortunate for a number of reasons — most of our kids have internet access, and each class had a website that students were already familiar with. Everyone adapted as best they could, which was not the same for everyone.”
Engebretsen, who just finished his ninth year teaching in Telluride, hails from Wisconsin and is the son of two teachers. Given his parents’ professions, he said, he originally thought he wanted nothing to do with teaching. By the time he was a college student, however, he’d had a change of heart, and realized that “teaching was a great way to find meaningful, creative work.”
Fast-forward a decade or so, and as a science teacher, he spends his days not only transmitting knowledge to young people but also making sure they know he cares about their wellbeing. That’s part of what has proven so difficult as a teacher with the transition to all-online learning.
“For me, the hardest part was not being able to see the kids,” he said. “Much of what makes this job meaningful is the informal interactions of teaching: looking someone in the eye, reading their body language, making them laugh. That is a huge part of how we show kids that we care about them. Without that, it sometimes felt like we were just sending assignments off into the void. Teaching certainly didn't feel as satisfying, it didn't feel like I could have the same impact.”
Despite the difficulties, or perhaps because of them, teachers have had to get creative when it comes to teaching plans, navigating new technology and — yes — capturing (and holding) the attention of teenagers.
“Lots of people really stepped up, which is always fun to watch,” he said. “We had one teacher who was always getting dressed up in costumes for his Zoom lessons — crazy wigs, ‘Tiger King’ mullets, things like that. Our tech department did an amazing job finding ways to connect kids to online, solving all sorts of problems before they even happened so the teachers could focus on our jobs as much as possible.”
Throughout all of this, Engebretsen says that the students themselves have a lot to teach.
“What impressed me most was the kids,” he said. “So many never complained and just made the best of the situation, whether they liked it or not. That resilience will help them so much later in life.”