PW special report: Voices from the pandemic

PW special report: Voices from the pandemic

- in COVID-19, News, Top Story

[Editor’s note: This is the first in a new series of special reports from NC Policy Watch that we’ve entitled “Voices from the pandemic.” In these brief vignettes, our award-winning team of journalists will share snippets from the lives of typical North Carolinians attempting to cope with and respond to the unprecedented global public health crisis.

Some of these stories may strike you as utterly familiar and ordinary, while others will likely cause you to shed a tear or shake your head in wonder (or your fist in anger). Whatever the case, we think you will find these individuals and their stories compelling, thought-provoking and worth sharing. We hope you agree and welcome your feedback, as well as your help in identifying other individuals whom we might feature in future installments of the series. — Rob Schofield – [email protected].]

Jessica Richardson

Jessica Richardson

Jessica Richardson is doubling up on the protective face masks these days. She has three children at home to protect, ages 1, 9 and 13.

A LabCorp phlebotomist, she works at a doctor’s office in Charlotte, drawing blood from patients.

“I double mask,” Richardson said. “I try to stay as positive as possible. I take my daily vitamin and extra Vitamin C. When I get home, I take a steaming hot shower to get any excess stuff off me. I wipe out my car with bleach (wipes) before my kids get in and spray it down with Lysol. I’m taking extra precautions compared to what I did before this virus came.”

Richardson’s considered an essential worker. Her world, like that of many frontline workers, has been upended by the contagious and deadly virus that has killed nearly 250 people in North Carolina.

Safety is a major concern, but many essential workers cannot afford to miss a paycheck.

At one time, Richardson’s duties included mailing swabs to a lab for COVID-19 testing. Her office no longer does that work, she said.

Richardson’s current job is primarily drawing blood from mostly elderly patients who visit the office for follow up visits after physicals taken months ago.There are occasional visits from patients who were tested for COVID-19 after experiencing symptoms.

“They were quarantined for two weeks and then came back to make sure that it wasn’t in their system, so I draw blood for that,” Richardson said.

She said the office where she works has increased its infection control by requiring patients to wear masks and ensuring they aren’t experiencing symptoms before they are seen by doctors, nurses or other staff members. Workers also have personal protective equipment..

“Normally, I’m a clean freak anyway, but this is making me be extra (clean),” Richardson said. “I wear my mask in front of every patient. After every patient, I wipe down with bleach products and spray Lysol. It’s kind of scary because some people have it and don’t have the symptoms. I still could come in contact with them and bring it home and I have kids.”

Gov. Roy Cooper ordered schools closed until at least May 15. Cooper is expected to make announcement regarding school closure this week.

Richardson said distance learning has been challenging for her two oldest children, a third grader and seventh grader.

“They’re so use to being in front of the teacher and the teacher breaking stuff down,” Richardson said. “Now they call me at work for help, and I have to put everything on pause because I’ve got to help and try to reach out to the teacher. It’s just a lot.”

Richardson is ready for her children to return to school and to regain the normalcy the family enjoyed before the COVID-19 crisis. “I don’t foresee them going back to school,” she said. “Every day, there are more cases of the virus.” — Greg Childress

Katie Adams

Katie Adams

When Katie Adams dreamed up posting a “Hygiene Hub” in Asheville to give women instant access to pads, tampons and other personal necessities, she never thought contactless distribution would have become such a vital part of the public health sphere.

“COVID has definitely changed the way that we distribute items,” Adams said. “We often meet women wherever they are and distribute [items] in person – very often with a big hug. Now we cannot do in-person distribution or give some hugs, so we are increasing contactless dropoffs at shelters and utilizing our new Hygiene Hub.”

Adams lives in Asheville with her husband, and the two own a construction company full-time. She began the Asheville Period Project while she was the director of missions for Kenilworth Presbyterian Church.

There, she had started another initiative, the Red Tent Ministry, which distributed hygiene items, baby clothes, diapers and more.

“It became obvious very early on the desperate need for feminine hygiene items in our community, so we decided to change our focus solely to that,” she said. “I realized that if we created a broader base of support in the community, we could do more good and increase our distribution.”

The Asheville Period Project was launched in July 2015. It is now a coalition of businesses, individuals, faith-based organizations, Pagans and other diverse groups that are helping to meet the needs of homeless and economically disadvantaged individuals in their community.

The Hygiene Hub was officially installed April 14, about a month into quarantine and social distancing.

If you’re in the area, you can’t miss the Hub. It’s a bright red box with a pink first-aid cross on the door, and it sits tall on a wooden base. It’s located in front of Kenilworth Church at 123 Kenilworth Road in Asheville.

The Hygiene Hub

When you open the door, the Hub is filled with hygiene packs for unsheltered women, condoms, soap, panty liners, pads, tampons, shampoo and conditioner. The Hub is ADA-compliant, located on the bus line and is on a campus with a food pantry.

“We love meeting with the individuals we serve and sharing space with them,” Adams said. “Thank goodness the Hygiene Hub was already in the works because it has enabled us to continue to meet the most basic human needs of our community.”

The response to the Hub has been overwhelming. A Facebook post about it has more than 38,000 views and over 430 shares. Adams said the Project has also received inquiries from other states about how they can install a Hygiene Hub in their communities.

And while she’s happy for the large response, she’s even more thankful that women will continue to get their needs met during this pandemic. She recalled a story about a woman who had been living in her car and called the Project for help.

“I had loaded up my car with tampons, pads, toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo and conditioner,” Adams said. “When she saw the items, her eyes welled up with tears, she threw her arms around me and said, ‘This is just like Christmas!’ No woman should receive the joy of Christmas just by having her basic human needs met.” — Melissa Boughton

How to help: The economy isn’t expected to bounce back quickly anytime soon and Adams is anticipating the Asheville Period Project’s distribution to dramatically increase. Here’s how you can help or get more information about installing your own Hygiene Hub:

  • Ship donations – Tampons, pads and individually wrapped hygiene wipes to 123 Kenilworth Road, Asheville, NC 28803. Donations can also be dropped off at the same address in the donation bin at the front door of the Kenilworth Church.
  • Designate financial donations for the Asheville Period Project online here. The designation can be made in the “notes” on the second page.
  • Adams said her husband is finalizing blueprints for the Hub, and they will have them available to anyone who wants to install one in their community. Reach her at this email: [email protected].

Farmworkers: Maria, Norma, Sophia and Flor

Farmworkers have been deemed “essential” employees. However, many don’t have protective equipment to combat the spread of the virus; nor do they have paid sick days, so they often keep working. To protect the workers from possible job-related retaliation, Policy Watch is withholding their last names. They told their stories on a media call, hosted by the Farmworker Advocacy Network. The accounts have been edited for space and clarity. — Lisa Sorg

Maria has worked at a poultry processing factory in North Carolina for 15 years.

“When the pandemic started [the company] said they would stop if there were any positive cases. That has not happened. There have been no stoppages when someone tests positive. We continue working. They are taken out, but we continue working. About 20 people have been sent home. We haven’t received any protective equipment.

“We basically work shoulder-to-shoulder, so we’re very close proximity to other workers. I have had a fever and felt flu-like symptoms, but I’ve taken Tylenol and kept on working. We have health insurance but when somebody gets sick and aren’t allowed to work any more they don’t get paid during that time.

“We would like to get protective equipment because we’re afraid.”

Norma usually works on tobacco and sweet potato farms, but has been working for the last two weeks in a meat processing plant. 

“Someone has been infected at the meat processing plant. They closed the department and are checking our temperature. They have given us something to cover our mouth. But that’s started only after someone was infected. It would have been nice if they had started that from the very beginning. I would ask the governor to value the people who work in the fields and that people are protected. Thinking about our children  — that’s what keeps pushing us forward.”

Sophia works in fields that grow tobacco, cucumbers and strawberries. She also works a sweet potato packing house. 

“It’s very hard work, starting at 6 in the morning until 7 at night. We have a ITN [Individual Tax Number, assigned by the IRS] and we pay taxes. But we haven’t been valued for the work we do.

“The pandemic  has definitely impacted us. I was working in a sweet potato packing house and it was supposed to be a five-month job, but they’ve stopped our work and replaced us with [guest] workers contracted from Mexico. Because of the coronavirus, we don’t have any work. About 40 people have lost their jobs. We haven’t received any [unemployment] benefits. We can’t pay our bills. If we don’t have a partner or husband then we don’t have anyone else to help bring in income.

“I would ask the governor for a just salary. We earn $8.50 an hour in strawberries, $9 an hour in sweet potatoes. We need someone to push for changes, for laws to protect us. There is a lot of pesticide exposure farmers often don’t do anything to provide protection for us.”

Flor works on tobacco and sweet potato farms. 

“I’ve been without work since February. They let us off from work because of the pandemic and said we couldn’t be exposed in the fields. Twenty of us are off work; five stayed behind who have been working there for a long time. And there was one person who was infected. 

Bathrooms for fieldworkers (Photo: Farmworker Advocacy Network)

“We need protection in the fields. To be provided gloves, a place to wash our hands. We don’t always have bathrooms in the fields. I asked one farmer about it and he said his field isn’t big enough to justify one. We went to another field and he said we couldn’t use it because it had been six weeks since it was last cleaned, and it was for 40 people.

“It affects us emotionally and economically. I can’t pay my bills and rent. It really increases stress for all of us.”

Lisa Smith-Perri

West Carteret Water Corporation

Earlier this month the West Carteret Water Corporation, off Highway 24 in Newport, put up signs outside their office.

“They said don’t come in unless you absolutely have to,” said Lisa Smith-Perri, executive director of the rural water non-profit. “And that’s not the way it is here.”

“People come in here to pay their water bill and they bring their dogs and their kids,” Smith-Perri said. “They hang out and talk with the staff, we give them suckers and dog biscuits.”

Smith-Perri’s staff of 25 provides water for more than 17,000 people in the western part of Carteret County, which is located down on the coast. The median household income there is about $54,000. A quarter of the population is 65 or older. Water isn’t a government-run utility there — but it is vital, especially now.

“With water, we’re part of what’s battling COVID-19,” Smith-Perri said. “Water is essential to combating this. We recognize that and we take it seriously. You have got to be able to wash your hands, stay clean, clean your house, your vehicle. You have to have clean drinking water.”

Lisa Smith-Perri

That’s why Smith-Perri took COVID-19 seriously, even when most people were paying little attention to it.

The West Carteret system has three elevated water tanks — two holding 750,00 gallons each and one holding 600,000. If the entire system went down as employees fell ill or had to be quarantined, it would have about 48 hours of stored water.

That was not going to happen, Smith-Perri said.

She began planning with her staff, which already cross-trains on each others’ jobs. They sanitized the office and work vehicles, separated people in the main office and out in the field, servicing customers.

“Some of the staff probably thought it was overkill in the beginning,” Smith-Perri said.

But soon an employee’s brother, sister-in-law and nephew all contracted the disease in New Jersey. The first case was confirmed in Carteret County. The importance of staying healthy and doing this essential work was clear to everyone.

The third week in March, Smith-Perri fielded a late night work call. There was something wrong — they couldn’t fill the tanks the way they usually did each evening. The usage was massive, suggesting a leak in the system.

But it wasn’t a leak — it was the beginning of a usage spike that has continued as whole families stay home from their workplaces and schools to slow the spread of the disease.

“We’re seeing usage right equivalent to summer and holiday weekends,” Smith-Perri said.

They’re adjusting, Smith-Perri said, and will keep everyone in water throughout the pandemic. Even before the governor issued Executive Order 124, the company decided not to cut off anyone who couldn’t pay. They’re also paying everyone on staff, even those staying home and keeping healthy should they need to be called into service.

“We have an amazing staff of professionals, we know what we’re doing is important, and we’re committed to it,” Smith-Perri said. “We’re going to get everyone through this.” — Joe Killian