5 stories of essential workers in Huntsville

By: Lucy DeButy

They don’t serve in the military, but they’re on the front lines each day.

Armed with face masks and gloves, they fight an invisible war, all while risking their own health to save lives and help others.

We’re talking about essential workers.

Healthcare professionals. Police officers. Grocery store clerks. Restaurant workers. Garbage collectors. And many, many more.

As coronavirus affects communities across the U.S., more people than ever want to help. No one does that better than our essential workers – those who confront the COVID-19 pandemic head-on while the rest of the world stays home.

To honor those hidden heroes, we’re bringing you the stories of five essential workers in Huntsville. Each represents the sacrifices Americans continue to make to protect the public and keep society functioning during an unprecedented public health crisis.

Let’s take a look.

Healthcare

A registered nurse for more than three decades, Joyce Thomas has seen a lot throughout her career.

But Thomas, who works for Huntsville Hospital, has never experienced anything quite like this.

“We’ve not seen what we’re going through – it’s the unknown,” she said. “We’re still putting ourselves out there as well as trying to guard against this and provide these essential elements that we need to keep the wheels turning.”

As manager of emergency preparedness, Thomas has been instrumental in Huntsville Hospital’s COVID-19 response. From coordinating a drive-through testing clinic to setting up a highly infectious disease unit within the ER, she’s been busy.

Thomas, who said it’s her job to stay on top of emerging infectious diseases, began closely monitoring the outbreak in February.

Aggressive approach

“Before it ever became an issue in the U.S., we took on a lot of awareness and started putting in our contingency plans,” she said. “We’ve been aggressively working this since before we even had an outbreak.”

Now that coronavirus is here, Thomas is working each day to protect both herself and the public from the disease.

Thomas said one of the hardest parts of her job is not being able to touch patients who are scared and in need of reassurance. Wearing a mask also means patients can’t see her smile, which has been challenging.

When she leaves work, several questions cross her mind. Did she do the right things? Is she protecting her family? Did she wash her hands enough? Did she remember not to touch her face?

She urges the public to take health advice seriously and continue to be vigilant as this situation unfolds.

“It’s going to be painful,” she said. “We can come out of the woods later, but right now in order to get on the other side, we’ve got to follow the guidance our elected officials are giving us.”

Hospitality

What happens when your grand opening collides with COVID-19?

You adjust and move forward, according to Canadian Bakin owner Matt Johnson.

At 4 a.m. each day, Johnson arrives at his Church Street restaurant to turn the oven on and start prepping baguettes. An assistant clocks in an hour later and starts baking.

“We started taking pre-orders as a way to just start doing business when our opening was canceled, but now we have shifted to operating closer to the way we always intended,” Johnson said. “We bake a set amount each day, and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., people can walk up, call in or order online for pickup same day.”

Coronavirus has also refined how Canadian Bakin cleans and sanitizes.

“Lots of hand washing, apron wearing and wiping surfaces down was already happening,” Johnson said. “Now it’s just expanded to things like sanitizing door handles more often and wearing gloves even when dealing with packaged foods. My hands are a desert lately from all the washing/hand sanitizer. We also keep the doors open so customers who do come in never have to touch the door.”

Leap of faith

Johnson started Canadian Bakin as a small side gig out of his home for friends. He soon decided to quit his desk job at Redstone Arsenal and get a part-time gig at Angel’s Island Coffee instead.

While there, he applied to Latham Farmers Market and started selling bread to people he didn’t know for the first time.

“It slowly grew over the next year or two and I finally took a leap of renting a commercial kitchen so I could try peddling wholesale breads to coffee shops,” he said.

Johnson launched his current brick-and-mortar space two years later. Although it’s been stressful opening during a health pandemic, Johnson said customers have been extremely kind.

“It’s a lot to ask of people to be patient while we figure out how to run a business during a time like this, but even so, people are understanding,” he said. “During a recent snag in our attempt to roll out some sandwiches using the online ordering system, there were customers offering to help run food out while they waited for their own. That’s heartwarming even when you’re stressed to the nines. The people in this town are wonderful and we love making bread for them.”

Retail

When he’s not taking nursing classes at UAH, Hunter Verge is at Star Market.

He’s been with the local grocery store since 2015, just after graduating high school. He started as a bagger and worked his way up to cashier and office assistant

Since the pandemic began in March, the 23-year-old has been busy filling orders for customers who don’t want to brave the grocery store themselves.

Fortunately, fewer people are panic buying essential items like toilet paper, Verge said. This allows grocers to catch up and ensures other more vulnerable populations don’t go without.

“Grocery stores aren’t going to shut down so you will always have a grocery store to go to,” he said. “It’s better not to hoard up on things because a lot of the elderly customers can’t come out super often. When they do, they’re very disappointed when someone who came in earlier bought seven or so packages of toilet paper.”

Precautions

Verge said Star Market is taking several precautions, such as displaying a makeshift fence around the registers to provide a barrier between the customer and cashier. There are signs reminding customers to stand 6 feet apart and the on-site pharmacy is making and selling hand sanitizer.

They’ve ramped up their cleaning protocols for frequently touched items, like shopping carts. Many people are also wearing gloves and face masks for extra protection.

“It’s a big change from what we’re used to in general,” Verge said. “Normally, you can grab groceries and not think about it, but now everybody has become so health conscious.”

Police

As residents stay home to slow the spread of coronavirus, Huntsville Police officer Bruce Jansen comes to work ready to face each day.

Jansen must risk his own health to maintain order and help keep the community safe.

“I am very fortunate because I do have a job that’s essential,” he said. “I’m not laid off and I’m still able to come in and work and get a paycheck. But yet you do have that flip side of the coin that even though I’m essential and still have a job, I’m also more at risk.”

The 15-year Huntsville Police veteran has gloves, masks and disinfectant wipes to help reduce his chances of getting or passing COVID-19 to others.

If a 911 caller has or lives with someone who has COVID-19 or possible symptoms, Jansen said the dispatcher alerts him before he responds.

Part of the solution

“We’re trying to be part of the solution, not part of the problem,” he said. “We don’t want to get it, and Lord forbid if we catch it, we don’t want to give it to somebody else,” he said.

Jansen said morning and lunch traffic has dropped significantly since Governor Ivey issued a stay at home order. With more people sheltering in place, he expected a rise in domestic violence calls, but that hasn’t been the case so far on day shift.

At Big Spring Park, Jansen said most people are keeping their distance and avoiding large gatherings.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how well everybody is taking this,” he said.

Coronavirus numbers have been dropping statewide, but we’re not out of the woods yet, Jansen cautions. He encourages everyone to continue separating and sanitizing.

“Let’s be smart about it,” he said. “We’ll get through it but we have to work together to get through it.”

Sanitation

The last few weeks at work have been busy for Brandon Young, a garbage truck driver for the City of Huntsville’s Sanitation Department.

More residents are cleaning out closets, garages and basements during the COVID-19 outbreak. They’re also spending more time doing yard work, overloading sanitation trucks with excess waste.

“It’s pretty close to a holiday when you have an overflow,” Young said. “Around the holiday season, especially Christmas and Thanksgiving, we have a lot of extra garbage. My routes have probably been about 10,000 pounds heavier since all this started.”

Garbage collection remains a high priority as COVID-19 evolves. To keep sanitation workers healthy, the City is isolating collection crews, restricting large assemblies, practicing social distancing and staggering start times.

How you can help

Young also has gloves, a face mask and hand sanitizer readily available to use as needed.

“We’re exposed to it daily and not only exposed, but we have that threat of taking it to our spouse, our kids or our parents,” he said.

There are ways you can help your neighborhood garbage truck driver stay safe during the pandemic.

Keep cans 5 feet apart so laborers don’t have to move the cans themselves and risk exposure. If there’s extra space in your can, Young said residents should place all trash inside it, not by the road.

Finally, be patient. With so many people staying home, there’s a lot of extra garbage, which can sometimes create delays.

“Everybody’s just doing the best they can and reacting on the fly the best they know how,” Young said. “I feel safe. I feel like everybody’s doing a good job and keeping us informed.”

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