In March 2020, the Philadelphia region shut down. It was a scary time. No one had ever seen the area so quiet, so deserted. But each day, thousands of essential workers overcame their own fears and worries about the coronavirus and did what they were asked to do: They went to work, doing jobs that helped keep the rest of us fed and healthy and safe. At the time, The Inquirer’s Opinion team talked to more than a dozen of those workers in fields ranging from health care to transportation, food service to trash collection, to ask them about how they were coping and what they were worried about in the early days of the pandemic. These were the people who were too essential to isolate when the rest of the city — and the country — was sequestered.
Now, a year later, we’ve turned back to those essential workers to check in. Some have changed jobs. Some have lost friends and family to the disease. They all kept going to work. We asked them how things have evolved over the last 12 months, what they’re worrying about now, and if they see any hope on the horizon as vaccines become more broadly available. These are their stories, in their own words.
Interviews by Elena Gooray, Abraham Gutman, Erica Palan, and Sandra Shea. Quotes have been condensed for length and clarity.
Patricia C. Henwood, ER doctor
The lowest point for me was when a family member died [of COVID-19]. I was helping support her care and she got monoclonal treatment right away. She got excellent care throughout, but she still passed away. We know [what can happen] as physicians, but then you see it up close, watching that unfold for my family. Now I see that happening for my patients. It brings everything home in terms of how a simple infection from another family member [can lead to death]. Families are who pose the most risk to each other and the fact that that led to my nephews not having a grandmother anymore was my lowest point. No matter how challenging the pandemic winter is, it’s not worth someone getting sick or dying over.
“It’s not worth someone getting sick or dying over.”
My dedication is now to vaccines. Honestly, I think it’s highly unlikely that that outcome would have happened [for my family member], if it were a few weeks later, or if she had gotten vaccinated, or had that opportunity.
Everyone’s so tired. COVID is still here. I see it in my patients and have had people in my family get infected this week. While everyone is tired, it is critically important to continue to maintain distancing and masking, and be patient until we can get more vulnerable people vaccinated and get vaccinations scaled up.
Patricia C. Henwood is associate professor of emergency medicine at Thomas Jefferson University.
Angel Cordero, grocery store employee
I think it’s brought people closer at work, at least it did for me. They become your second family. When you leave your house that’s the only place you’re going and you want to get along better. The brightest thing to me was the amount of increased business that our stores got over this pandemic, and the way they came together to get the stores back into shape. Our shelves were bare. Everybody, every retailer out there, was empty. But our teams came together to think outside the box, get creative, and procure all of the staple items that customers were looking for.
“It was the toughest point in my career.”
The beginning of July was pretty tough. Besides the pandemic, we had the social unrest, all over the country. Usually social issues don’t hit you at the job, or you don’t feel it, but I think it was so big in our country at the time that it was impacting our workers and their mental well-being. It was the toughest point in my career.
When the pandemic began, Angel Cordero was a store manager at a Philly Giant. In July, he took a new job as the facility manager of e-commerce fulfillment for the Philadelphia Giant Direct fulfillment center.
Francis T. Ferry, Teladoc pediatrician
I’m a pediatrician, and I saw the struggles of parents and children with this. Some kids did very well with being online. Some of the kids with development and attention-deficit problems did better on the computer. But others, this wasn’t for them. A lot of them were getting computer fatigue. They missed their friends. We’re seeing more anxiety and depression in these children. And for parents, it’s: How do I do this? How do I work? How do I have a life?
“We used to be able to see our grandchildren.”
I’m worried about the lost education and the lost socialization. I think kids are pretty resilient, they’re going to come through it OK in the end. But it’s been a difficult period, and I worry about them and their families.
We used to be able to see our grandchildren who live in Cherry Hill, a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old. We would have them once or twice a week, and we would care for them and watch them grow up. We have two granddaughters in Colorado who we would only see once a quarter. We haven’t seen them in a year and a half. We don’t see the Cherry Hill kids every week like we used to. We miss them terribly. They come over sometimes and we’ll be outside, and pull them in the wagon and stuff. But it’s not at all like it was. We were helping to raise them, and it was very heartwarming. Now we don’t have that, and that’s probably been our biggest loss in the pandemic.
Francis T. Ferry is a pediatrician in West Deptford.
Melissa Herrera, Fire Department EMT
[My fears now] are almost equivalent to the same thing as last year. What scares me most now is the different strains of COVID-19 that are approaching, and how effective are the vaccines going to be with these different strains?
“A year ago we went into it pretty much blind.”
I have a bunch of different medication and food allergies, so I’m working hand in hand with my doctor to see if it’s going to be OK for me to actually [get the vaccine]. It’s something that I am going to eventually get, because it puts you at peace of mind that there’s something protecting you.
We still don’t know how this virus is gonna transform. A year ago we went into it pretty much blind. We were pretty much doing the whole bodysuits and things of that nature. We’re still doing the full PPE on calls. But at least we have some type of insight on what we’re looking at. And hopefully with the vaccine, we can put a stop to and start lowering these COVID numbers.
The Fire Department also lost two members from COVID-19 complications. When it hits close to home like that, it’s more of an eye-opener.
Melissa Herrera is a fire service EMT at Engine 68 & Ladder 13 in Southwest Philadelphia.
Patrick Anamah, taxi driver
A lot of us are still scared. Some people are not coming out to work. But when you look at your pocket and your pocket is dry, you have no option but to come out.
People are being very cautious, trying to keep their mask on, clean all the taxis. You are lucky to get a customer. Some people value taxi drivers, but the majority are now doing Uber, which is taking a lot of business, particularly at the airport and train station.
“Some people are not coming out to work.”
It’s worse now in the sense that primarily last year, at least you could come to the airport to get about three fares. But now you can come to the airport and spend hours [waiting]. I came out about 10 o’clock, and I’m still here [at 1:40 p.m.] and have not even picked up the first fare. Yesterday I only had one ride out of the airport for the whole day.
It is very difficult for any driver to tell you that they are making enough money to pay for their lease and take care of their family and the rest of it. I used to file for unemployment. At times they give you, at times they don’t give you. That’s how most cabdrivers are surviving.
I am hopeful that at least with the vaccine out, the business will come up a little bit. Though not like the volume we used to have before COVID-19. But if everybody complies to take the vaccine, I’m hoping that things will change.
Patrick Anamah is a taxi driver.
Zackary Williams, trash collector
It hit home maybe a month ago, when I started to see coworkers fall to the pandemic. I’ve seen situations where not only did it get my coworker, but it got his wife. That just rocked me. He and I were so close, and our relationship didn’t just stay on the job. That loss of him and others who were close to me, that really shook me.
“We are doing everything we can to defend ourselves against the virus.”
We have the option to retire at the retirement age or work a little longer. I always would say I’d work a little past my retirement age just for a little security. But at this point you can’t predict what the outcome is. For [the pandemic] to be so real, what you planned for you can’t control because something may happen so unexpectedly and you might not have a chance to enjoy the fruits that you labor for.
The high point of the situation is that they have a vaccination for the virus, and the numbers are going down. That changes the low point of how I feel — I have a few more years to go before I retire, just a few! In my work environment, as you know, we pick up what people don’t want and what may be contaminated from other things besides the virus. But now I feel as though I have some type of shield to protect myself and my coworkers to work a little longer, or enjoy life. We have doctors and politicians working toward getting our life and getting things in order. And we [workers] are doing everything we can to defend ourselves against the virus.
Zackary Williams has worked for the City of Philadelphia for 28 years.
Angie Cleghorn, intensive care unit nurse
Last spring and summer were probably the worst months of my career. We are a 20-bed ICU that flexed up to two additional ICUs that we staffed. So staffing was very grim. Most of us were working about 60 hours a week. I’ve never seen patients sicker in my life. As soon as one of our beds became empty we would fill it. There were always people waiting to come in. It was very difficult because there were a lot of people who died during this time, and no family was allowed to be with them.
“I’ve never seen patients sicker in my life.”
Probably in one shift we had about 10 patients die on my floor. And we just replaced them with 10 more.
[I recently spoke to my sister] and she said, “Do you believe that there’s a half a million people dead?” And my answer to that is: I really thought, as sick as our patients were and how many we had and how we couldn’t keep the pace, I honestly thought there would be so many more.
I keep thinking: What if that type of surge happens again? There have been surges up and down, but we never made it quite to the level that we were in the spring and early summer last year, thankfully. Now the admissions are down. It seems to me that people aren’t getting as sick. Why that is I’m not sure. But you just keep waiting.
We struggled with personal protective equipment. We weren’t getting that. Now we do get a new mask every day. That’s a blessing.
The vaccine keeps me hopeful. Maybe I’m putting too much stock in it, but I feel like that’s our way out — to get everybody vaccinated, and acquire enough herd immunity, to where we can get back to normal and try to begin to recover from what we’ve just lived through.
Angie Cleghorn is a registered nurse in the ICU at the Jeanes Campus of Temple University Hospital.
Clayton Ruley, community health worker
I try to remind people that you know COVID-19 didn’t start the majority of the issues that our participants are dealing with, it only added the cherry on top of a really nasty sundae. Some of the same concerns that I had before COVID, I have right now with COVID-19 present, and that keeps me up: homelessness, lack of access to medical care to mental health care to treatment to the attitude that folks are disposable and we shouldn’t do the best we can to help people, despite the fact that we know that what we’ve been doing has not worked.
“There’s a large gap of access to services in certain communities.”
The presence of fentanyl, particularly in Black and brown communities, is alarming. The fact that fentanyl is going across classes of drugs, as far as not just being found in opioids but also in other substances, and the initial lack of outreach and is something that is changing right now. It can’t just be a Kensington thing or a South Philly thing, as far of those who know us and those who don’t know. There’s a large gap of access to services in certain communities, that certainly has been highlighted during COVID-19.
One positive thing: the ability to do a Christmas meal on our meal site for about 400 people or a Thanksgiving Day meal and give people a little taste of home for them, or even if they didn’t get that in their home, just some nice hot food for them to enjoy for the holiday.
[Because of COVID-19, many people] clearly see that there’s some broken systems as far as how we treat people and the resources that we give them. This is a perfect opportunity to build more structures for the future so that if something like this ever happens again it won’t happen the same way that it is happening right now.
Clayton Ruley is director of community engagement and volunteer services at Prevention Point Philadelphia.
Sylvia Cuevas, PATCO supervisor
We’re getting used to it. [The pandemic,] it’s normal for us now. We take it day by day. Things obviously are changing, slowly. Cases are diminishing. The only thing we can do is to continue to do the right thing, meaning meeting safety guidelines. And then, spend time each day recounting a few things that we feel we accomplished even though there is virus in the air. We all talk about how there is hope out there. That we have to work together as a team to continue on, every day, and to the rest of this year, and see what happens next. I believe we’re still going to be wearing masks for a long period of time and continue following social distancing.
“None of my team members has caught the virus.”
This is why I try to communicate with my team. If they ever need anything, call me, don’t hesitate to pick up the phone. I’ll do my best to assist them with anything they need out on the line. And I’ve done my best to give them what they’ve requested. But they’ve done well. You would think people would call out a lot, only because they are afraid of the virus. But they had done well. Also passengers have followed the guidelines.
The bright spot [of this year] would be that none of my team members has caught the virus. The low spot would be that we are still not back to normalcy. We are still, day by day, week by week, waiting for that to happen. When will it happen? When will we have the high ridership we had? When can we get together in groups, to have meetings or any type of interaction with our fellow employees? That’s the low one, just wondering when.
Sylvia Cuevas is a manager for passengers services at PATCO.
Michael Hinson, emergency housing provider
This last year has been probably the toughest public service year that I’ve had in my whole career. It’s been the toughest year that we’ve had, as an organization. On the bright side, I think that the year has been very insightful in the way that it has really pulled back the covers on the institutionalized racism, bias, and discrimination that have really infiltrated in our system for a very long time. COVID has really pulled back the curtain on what that actually looks like and how it shows up — not just in our participants’ lives but also in our team members’ and our connected community’s life. It has been a very difficult year.
“We had to think ‘what would these Black and brown mothers do under these circumstances?’”
We had to think, “What would these Black and brown mothers do under these circumstances?” Because Black and brown mothers are always innovative, creative, and they are always burdened with the responsibility of being resilient — just like our organization. So it would have made a whole bunch of sense for us to have routine testing available at our sites, where people knew it was available on a certain day and they could come and get tested. With that not happening, we had to be creative. We had to develop partnerships. We had to schedule when they are going to come out. We had to schedule participants so that they can know that it’s happening. All that is very cumbersome and it’s burdensome. And the result is that we don’t help as many people as we’d like to help. But we’re also not just sitting down and not showing up for our participants. We are still figuring out a way to be resilient in this time period.
Resiliency is a burden that is often placed on Black and brown communities. And the celebratory nature of resilience should be rethought. We should not be forcing Black and brown communities into resiliency. We should be thinking about how do we prevent the need for resiliency.
Michael Hinson Jr. is the president and chief operating officer of SELF Incorporated, an emergency housing provider for single adults in Philadelphia.
Bob Dolan, truck driver
We’re a “less than truckload” carrier. We take multiple shipments from multiple customers and move them across the country. Our guys could be doing anywhere between 12 and 18 stops a day.
“The key is staying vigilant and staying prepared.”
My son works for UPS. He’s out every day. I’m out every day making pickups and deliveries. We’re doing an important job. My son was out on those snow days delivering the vaccine. We’re on the forefront. We have to keep things moving for the country.
As far as what I’m afraid of, I don’t think I’d use the word afraid. If you’re afraid in a frontline situation it’s going to work on you. The key is staying vigilant and staying prepared.
The best thing to hope for is to get the vaccinations out there. In the trucking industry, vaccinations are very challenging. Think about a long-haul trucker. How do you schedule an appointment if you’re in California one day and you’ve got to get back for an appointment and you’re delayed by snow? The one-shot vaccine will be a positive for our industry. A bright spot is seeing a decrease in the number of cases and deaths, and the vaccination outlay. Hopefully you’re looking at the light at the end of the tunnel. We can get this under control.
Bob Dolan is a driver and sales representative, XPOLogistics in Allentown.