While most of us are socially isolating in an effort to quell the coronavirus pandemic, there are some people whose jobs and skills are too essential to be sequestered. These are their stories, in their own words.

Additional interviews by Abraham Gutman and Elena Gooray.


Does your job put you on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic? The Inquirer wants to hear from you.

Tell us how your job has changed in the last few weeks, what scares you, and what you wish people knew. Email us with your story at opinion@inquirer.com. Please include your name and phone number. (Contact information will not be shared publicly.)


Dr. Patricia Henwood in the emergency department at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.
Karen Kirchhoff
Dr. Patricia Henwood in the emergency department at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.

Patricia Henwood, ER doctor

In emergency medicine, we’re seeing things as they unfold in real time. One Saturday, I think was the 14th, I was working and noted a bunch of patients presenting with a viral syndrome with bad headaches and sore throats and some GI symptoms and other things which would not at the time have been consistent with our case definition for COVID-19. I started to be more concerned that there may be more cases in the community.

I have significant experience working on the Ebola response, so from the first moment I heard about this, I was obviously hoping that the outbreak was not spreading.

“In emergency medicine, we’re seeing things as they unfold in real time.”

Patricia Henwood

[Since the outbreak started in America], I’ve done a complete 180 [in my work]. I was due to be on a plane to Malawi to work on developing some of our partnerships with Jefferson there. [But because that trip was canceled], I’ve been able to help lead the emergency medicine Covid-19 Task Force. All of my attention has been diverted to this response based on having some experience working an epidemic before.

I feel a bit more comfortable than most in extensive PPE [personal protective equipment] or “spacesuits.” That’s really an issue for me in terms of interactions with my family and child care and all those things which are being challenged.

The concern is that for most people in the community, we don’t anticipate they’ll get critically ill, but those people may be spreading it to people who will get critically ill and that is going to be what impacts the health system and creates surges that would let us not take care of those patients in the way that we would like to if we had more capacity.

Patricia C. Henwood is associate professor of emergency medicine at Thomas Jefferson University.

Sylvia Cuevas, PATCO supervisor

My crews in the stations began to have concerns a few weeks ago. They were telling me: We see passengers wearing masks. Should we wear masks? Their anxiety started to rise, and their concern was, Could we get the virus? Because often they are face to face with passengers.

We have always had gloves available and last month masks became available. I tell my employees, Make sure you’re sanitizing, and washing, and keeping your distance. If you’re sick, stay home for your own sake, and for the passengers coming through.

“How long is this going to go for? There’s no answer.”

Sylvia Cuevas

How we work has changed drastically. Now we have to maintain that distance between us. Before, things were more face-to-face. Now it’s more emails and phone calls, but I still have to ease their anxiety and make sure their voices are heard. It’s more difficult now, and I feel the concern, too. I have two daughters and a granddaughter, and I don’t want to bring anything home they could catch.

[PATCO] helps first responders get to their jobs, and we’ve just got to work together. It’s not easy, but we have faith that things will work out. We have to take this seriously and be careful, because it’s life and death.

Sylvia Cuevas is acting director of PATCO fare collection and passenger service.

Angel Cordero is the manager of Giant Heirloom Market in West Philadelphia.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Angel Cordero is the manager of Giant Heirloom Market in West Philadelphia.

Angel Cordero, grocery store manager

At the beginning everyone was buying in high volume, coming in frequently buying a lot of groceries. When they shut down the two schools near here — Drexel and Penn — we had a lot less customers, but … people are still buying heavily.

“It’s a risk being in a public place with so many people shopping there.”

Angel Cordero

A lot of my employees are people who work at Penn full time and have been laid off … so they were able to pick up the hours at GIANT Heirloom Market. That has been helpful and it is good that we were able to provide hours for people who can’t get the work elsewhere. We have many people applying for jobs still. We’re constantly interviewing and onboarding, even during this.

At this time, you’re not going to be able to find every item that you want, but you should be able to find the staples. We are being more strategic in our [ordering] approach with making sure that the items that the customers need the most are there.

It’s a risk being in a public place with so many people shopping there. I wish people knew how hard our people are working.

Angel Cordero is the store manager at GIANT Heirloom Market in University City.

Angie Cleghorn, intensive care unit nurse

I love taking care of people, but we nurses are scared, because we have to go home to our families. When I started hearing the news about the epidemic in China months ago, I didn’t really think it would come here. But I honestly felt like, yes, I could handle it, if it did. I work with a great group of nurses and physicians. I felt pretty confident.

But I do not feel confident about the government, because of the shortage of supplies. Typically when treating a patient in this type of isolation, every mask [would be used once and then we’d] dispose of it. Now the CDC says you can use a mask for an entire shift. A shift is 12 hours. The CDC keeps changing the guidelines. I don’t know if the public realizes that.

“I do not feel confident about the government, because of the shortage of supplies.”

Angie Cleghorn

I do wish that if someone doesn’t usually come to the emergency room because they have a cough, they won’t come now — unless they have a real reason they would normally come to the emergency room.

I just hope that we can flatten the curve [of rapidly increasing cases] and can get back to normal as soon as possible. People are losing their jobs, and I feel terrible. I don’t want to look at my 401(k). This isn’t just a pandemic, it’s an economic crisis, too.

Shutting down everything, and the social distancing, are not easy. But this has the potential to get thousands of times worse. We have to be diligent.

Angie Cleghorn is a registered nurse in the ICU at the Jeanes Campus of Temple University Hospital.

Melissa Herrera, of Philadelphia, Fire Service EMT at Engine 68 & Ladder 13, continues to work throughout the coronavirus outbreak. “It’s a little difficult because you don’t know if the person is positive or not,” Herrera said. “You’re scared to bring back something to your family or in this case the firehouse.”
TYGER WILLIAMS / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Melissa Herrera, of Philadelphia, Fire Service EMT at Engine 68 & Ladder 13, continues to work throughout the coronavirus outbreak. “It’s a little difficult because you don’t know if the person is positive or not,” Herrera said. “You’re scared to bring back something to your family or in this case the firehouse.”

Melissa Herrera, fire department EMT

We have to take additional precautions while taking the history and getting a general impression of a patient, whether in a residence or on the street. We would normally be in closer contact, but now it’s a good 6-feet distance. It gives us peace of mind, but it hinders patient care as well, because if it’s something significant [in the history or condition of the patient] we have to retreat from the house or the street and get in our proper PPE [personal protective equipment]. And due to the increase in call volume, our supplies are kind of depleted at the moment.

“Philly is not taking social distancing seriously.”

Melissa Herrera

We have had calls [involving] coronavirus. It has been scary, but the proper PPE kind of eases your mind. People reach out to us on the phone, but people also are afraid to get in close contact with us, because we deal with the public. People are afraid we could transmit something to them. We had a couple of people who refused to get in the medic unit, as if we’re a walking coronavirus or something.

I believe a lot of people aren’t taking the actual precautions of staying inside, and social distancing, seriously enough. Because of that we’re going to experience a lot of deaths. It worries me as a health-care provider, because it endangers the health and safety of all of us.

Melissa Herrera is a fire service EMT at Engine 68 & Ladder 13 in Southwest Philadelphia.

Michael Hinson, emergency housing provider

What kept me up last night is that I had two employees who were in the hospital because they had flulike symptoms. One had to be rushed to the hospital by ambulance and another one was able to take himself to the hospital.

It keeps me up at night knowing that we have all of these people who are living in our emergency housing sites, and that we’re responsible for keeping them healthy. And that we have 169 members who have family members and who have children and who have loved ones and who have no faith institutions that they’re a part of and all other kinds of things.

We’re responsible for doing everything we can to make sure that they’re healthy: making sure that our team members wipe down the door, wipe down the sink, wipe down the shower, wipe down the counters. We’re literally spending all of our time just thinking, What else do we need to do to mitigate the possibility of this infection spreading in our shelter system? Because once that happens, it’s no stopping in a system where you have so many people who are sleeping in close quarters with each other.

Michael Hinson, Jr. is the president and chief operating officer of SELF Incorporated, an emergency housing provider for single adults in Philadelphia.

Clayton Ruley is Prevention Point Philadelphia's Director of Community Engagement and Volunteer Services.
Courtesy of Relief Communications
Clayton Ruley is Prevention Point Philadelphia's Director of Community Engagement and Volunteer Services.

Clayton Ruley, community health worker

We’ve lost about 85% of our volunteer base. We still have some community members who are interested, as well as other participants of our programs, but, in general, when you’re dealing with a high-risk virus, like the coronavirus, individuals, organizations, schools that would normally send volunteers aren’t doing that anymore. They’re telling folks to stay home — and with good reason.

“We’ve lost about 85% of our volunteer base.”

Clayton Ruley

Our drop-in center was open seven days a week, anywhere from seven to 11 hours a day. People were able to come in and get a cup of coffee and have a seat and get out of the street for the day, or for a few hours. They could get educated, or watch a movie. It was light, but it was also a gateway for folks to sign up for case management, HIV testing, medical clinics, and more. And because of social distancing policy — which we understand — we can’t have a drop-in center currently. That’s really harmful.

Clayton Ruley is director of community engagement and volunteer services at Prevention Point Philadelphia.


Does your job put you on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic? The Inquirer wants to hear from you.

Tell us how your job has changed in the last few weeks, what scares you, and what you wish people knew. Email us with your story at opinion@inquirer.com. Please include your name and phone number. (Contact information will not be shared publicly.)


John Walker, food courier

I go to different restaurants every day, and interact with managers and restaurant workers as well as customers. It's definitely a risk. That’s why I’m constantly washing my hands, sanitizing, and wearing protective gloves.

“I’m constantly washing my hands.”

John Walker

I normally set out to hit a certain quota. Since the arrival of the coronavirus, and restaurants started taking precautions and changing store hours and things like that, there’s definitely been a decrease in the amount of money I make. Before, I would get started at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. and finish by the afternoon. Now, if I come out at the same time, I’m out at least 12 hours or 16 hours to make the same amount of money.

In the last few days, the tips were bigger. The customers appreciate food being delivered at a time of crisis like this.

John Walker is a food delivery worker from North Philadelphia. He delivers for GrubHub, Uber Eats, Caviar, and Postmates.

Officer Amanda Shephard of the Upper Darby Police Department is trying not to worry about coronavirus too far ahead but wonders if her kids will be able to go back to school.
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Officer Amanda Shephard of the Upper Darby Police Department is trying not to worry about coronavirus too far ahead but wonders if her kids will be able to go back to school.

Amanda Shephard, police officer

We are all obsessively sanitizing our cars. ... In our minds, it makes it easier to do the job.

It is obviously spreading very quickly, and that is most concerning. Of course police officers are all a little concerned about being exposed. We’re trying to do our job efficiently, but we have to take precautions. We’re not as proactive as far as traffic stops and pedestrian stops. There are some complaints we might take over the phone, as opposed to showing up… [and] if we come to your house, we might ask you to step outside.

“Police officers are all concerned about being exposed.”

Amanda Shephard

People have been pretty good [about following the guidelines], but there are still people outside. People have to live. I have noticed people are trying to maintain space. We get calls about groups congregating, and we will just drive by and say, Hey, guys, what’s going on?

I’ve had contact with a lot of people who are taking it seriously, but I’ve also had contact with people who think it’s been sensationalized by the media, and kids who think, it’s just a flu — if I get it, I get it.

I’m trying not to worry about it too far ahead. I don’t want to be stressed out … as it goes on. Upper Darby has a lot of small businesses, and this concerns me. Some of them may not be able to open back up. And the kids. Are they going to be able to go back to school?

Amanda Shephard is a police officer in Upper Darby.

Kathleen Lee, clinical innovator

We launched the West Philly [testing] site. There is also a Radnor site. It was clear we had to provide a service not only to the Penn Medicine community – our employees and our patients — but to the wider community. So many individuals do not have primary care physicians, do not have insurance. Or do not drive cars. While we wish we could have popped up sites literally everywhere, in round one for this past week, it was imperative that there was not only a drive-through but a walk-through concept as well.

What’s hard is wanting to explain every piece of nuance [in this process] to our community but not being able to. Making the decision of who to test, who not to test, is something we take very seriously. We’ve engaged our infectious-disease colleagues and the leadership to make sure we’re making the best decisions for the community. But there is forever struggle when resources are constrained.

“Making the decision of who to test is something we take very seriously.”

Kathleen Lee

On a personal level, the hardest thing is that I make my own choices. And I feel comfortable with it. It is a privilege to serve in this way. But you know…we're so grateful to the people we live with at home. That’s a burden you carry, the extra dimension to this -- it's not just yourself involved. What is your impact on the people who may have not chosen this lifestyle, but they chose you?

There’s a lot of focus on physicians right now, but there are so many people who make this work. Physicians are an important part, but the amount our nurses give, and people from our registrar to the folks who actually disinfect everything to keep them clean – we need to highlight them and the decisions they have to make. Weighing for themselves, their families, and the greater good is not easy. The best you can do is the best you can do. So many people behind the scenes are putting in 20 hours a day.

Kathleen Lee is director of clinical implementation for the Center for Health Care Innovation at Penn Medicine; director of innovation and an assistant professor in the department of emergency medicine.

Zakary Wiliams has worked for the City of Philadelphia for 27 years. "My concerns have always been about health, because of the various diseases that have come along," he says. "But this disease is at the highest level. It’s got to be respected."
Philadelphia Streets Department
Zakary Wiliams has worked for the City of Philadelphia for 27 years. "My concerns have always been about health, because of the various diseases that have come along," he says. "But this disease is at the highest level. It’s got to be respected."

Zakary Wiliams, trash collector

My two-man crew and I work throughout West and Southwest Philadelphia. I take pride in what I do. My concerns have always been about health, because of the various diseases that have come along. But this disease is at the highest level. It’s got to be respected.

My coworkers are being careful and naturally our concerns are pretty much the same — keeping social distance from the public, and even each other. We’re always washing our hands, and just being more mindful of what we could contract and bring to each other. We try not to dwell on the depths of how bad it is.

“This disease is at the highest level. It’s got to be respected.”

Zakary Wiliams

Even before coronavirus, we worked under stress on a daily basis. You never know what’s in that bag on the curb. Now our fear is the same as anyone at the supermarket, or anyone who receives mail at their house. In all honesty the coronavirus makes me more aware on another level of how important my job is for making things safer for the public.

Maybe we’ll learn to respect an outbreak when it starts, not wait until it’s in its worse stage. Next time maybe we’ll nip it in the bud and not let it grow.

Zakary Wiliams has worked for the City of Philadelphia for 27 years.

Francis T. Ferry, Teladoc pediatrician

Suddenly about a month ago we became very busy. People are afraid to go to a doctor’s office and be in waiting rooms, or they’re following recommendations about social distancing. So a lot of calls we’re getting now are not about coronavirus but about children with pinkeye or a rash whose parents don’t want to go to the doctor because they are fearful of being around sick people.

A Teladoc pediatrician normally speaks to the parents, but when a patient is over 18 we can speak directly to them. We have a lot of college kids calling. They don’t have high levels of anxiety about [contracting] the coronavirus. But it does affect them -- they’ve been sent home from school, they’re trying to do course work online, they’re back home with their parents. They just feel that their lives have been significantly disrupted.

We have never had in my lifetime anything like this. I’m not frightened from a standpoint of my own health; I am frightened for my younger loved ones and for other people in general. I am concerned about the pain and the hardships that may still be coming.

Francis T. Ferry is a pediatrician in West Deptford.

Patrick Anamah is a taxi driver. "These days I must wait eight to nine hours for one fare," he says.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Patrick Anamah is a taxi driver. "These days I must wait eight to nine hours for one fare," he says.

Patrick Anamah, taxi driver

Three weeks ago I had a conversation with young guy who flew in from Maine, and he told me the aircraft had only 11 people on it. I said to myself, Wow, this virus is affecting everything.

I have hand sanitizer in my car. In the morning before I leave [for the airport] I sanitize the doors and the seats. This is new because of the virus. And when I get home I sanitize everything before I go inside.

“I make sure I don’t embarrass my customers.”

Patrick Anamah

Now the first thing when I pick up a fare is to see if they’re coughing. I say, Please, I don’t want to disrespect you, but with this virus flying all around the world, and you just came out of the aircraft and lifted your luggage ... you can sanitize your hands with my hand sanitizer.

I have never denied anyone a ride, but I have to be very careful. I am a father of five and grandfather of four. I look at the person from my rear mirror and see what is going on. Normally I ask them, How was your flight? But now I say, I hope you are OK.

I make sure I don’t embarrass my customers. I have to be very polite. I say, I hope you are OK, like I am.

Patrick Anamah is a taxi driver.

Bob Dolan, truck driver

In the last few weeks, talking to customers and other drivers, there was a slow upswing of concern. And now, we can no longer enter buildings to make deliveries.

It’s a whole culture change. We are on the outside looking in. Now our customers are loading and unloading our trailers. They’re on lockdown and we are trying to make their life as easy as possible. And we have restrictions too. We have gloves on and use hand sanitizer.

You go to a customer you go to every day, and usually he doesn’t have a pen on him, so you give him your pen to sign the receipt, but now, you don’t. We have to pick up [paperwork], so we have rubber gloves on. It’s a whole transformation of the transaction.

Bob Dolan is a driver and sales representative, XPOLogistics in Allentown.


Does your job put you on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic? The Inquirer wants to hear from you.

Tell us how your job has changed in the last few weeks, what scares you, and what you wish people knew. Email us with your story at opinion@inquirer.com. Please include your name and phone number. (Contact information will not be shared publicly.)