North Carolina’s helpers
Across the state, front-line workers have stepped up to navigate the coronavirus pandemic.
Fred Rogers, also known as “Mister Rogers” on his beloved PBS series, has a famous quote from his mother about looking for “helpers” in scary times: people who serve as beacons of positivity when things are darkest.
Across the state, there are inspiring stories of helpers stepping up during the coronavirus pandemic, which has given a renewed sense of appreciation for front-line workers and redefined what it means to be essential. From nurses and health care workers to delivery drivers, food processors, farmers, janitors and grocers, thousands of North Carolinians have risked their health to keep the state running during unprecedented circumstances. Meanwhile, the broader business community has switched operations to support response and recovery efforts.
The state’s health care heroes began preparing a response in mid-February. Across North Carolina, hospital systems amassed the necessary equipment; implemented additional training, protocols and screenings; and coordinated with national, state and local health departments to create strategies to stop the virus from spreading.
Despite facing shortages of tests and protective equipment, the state’s nurses and doctors established coronavirus emergency units, testing locations and other efforts to protect community health.
“What people are seeing from nurses during this pandemic should make us all proud: bravery, professionalism and dedication,” says Dennis Taylor, president of the N.C. Nurses Association. “Nurses have always been the patient’s best advocate in any health care situation, and 2020 is putting that unique relationship in a whole new perspective. … I have never been more proud to be a nurse.”
At Atrium Health, nurses and doctors raced to establish coronavirus-testing centers in underserved and minority communities to address some of the hardest-hit demographics. The Charlotte-based system’s March partnership with Charlotte Motor Speedway created the country’s first professional sports venue serving a remote coronavirus-testing site.
Health officials at Winston-Salem-based Novant Health created a 24/7 helpline dedicated to answering patient questions and concerns about the virus and established screening centers and triage tents outside of emergency departments to check for symptoms and act as additional resources for the community.
Across the state, nursing-home care providers risk exposure despite taking extreme precautions to protect the most at-risk age group. In addition to strictly following state health department guidances, North Carolina’s assisted living facilities have heavily restricted access to visitors and people with respiratory symptoms, increased sanitation and disinfectant requirements, and set up remote communications channels for residents to keep in touch with family members during the outbreak.
“One of the most challenging jobs during this pandemic has involved caring for our state’s most vulnerable residents,” says Adam Sholar, president and CEO of the N.C. Health Care Facilities Association, which represents the state’s nursing homes. “North Carolina has more than 45,000 employees working inside our nursing homes, providing critically important care under extremely difficult conditions. These employees have shown a true commitment to caring for our residents and deserve our appreciation and support.”
North Carolinians working on the front lines of the pandemic extend beyond the health care field. Gov. Roy Cooper’s May 30 executive order highlighted how often overlooked positions, such as cashiers, grocery baggers, janitors, postal workers and delivery drivers, are the ones that step up and go beyond their job requirements when times get tough.
“For the last few weeks, retail workers have been on the front lines serving their communities by keeping the stores North Carolinians need running,” says Andy Ellen, president of the NC Retail Merchants Association. “Whether it was groceries, medications, tools or pet supplies, there were retailers and retail staff stocking shelves, cleaning their stores, unloading trucks, checking customers out and assisting with curbside pickup to serve their customers during these difficult times. It has never been more of an honor and privilege to represent these dedicated retailers and their employees.”
To help prevent the spread of the virus, many grocery stores designated specific shopping hours for seniors and at-risk customers. Additional training, plexiglass barriers at cash registers, cleaning protocols and masks for all
employees are among some of the adjustments front-line grocery workers have made during the pandemic.
Matthews-based Harris Teeter added more than 5,000 associates across its 250 stores, helping meet increased demand and add important services, expanding delivery options and waiving fees for seniors. The grocer’s employees donated 640,000 pounds of protein and produce to feed community members in need, and workers distributed more than 534,000 to local food banks across Harris Teeter’s footprint.
Food Lion provided more than 21 million meals to families in need through company initiatives while keeping shelves stocked, maintaining inventory levels and sanitizing stores as in-store demand grows, and customers begin to venture back out of their homes. The Salisbury-based company has donated more than $5.1 million to different causes during the pandemic, including helping fund research at UNC Health to discover treatments and vaccines for the virus.
Beyond those stocking shelves are the front-line workers who have been managing the supply chain, which has taken a heavy hit during the pandemic. The state’s farmers and meat processors have continued to feed communities while facing outbreaks in plants.
To navigate the pandemic, the state’s meat processors have implemented thermal scanning systems to identify sick employees, enhanced sanitation protocols and requirements for personal protective equipment, installed plexiglass and other barriers in large gathering spaces, and enforced additional distancing measures. Smithfield Foods, North Carolina’s largest hog producer, has increased health and sick leave benefits and relaxed attendance policies to eliminate repercussions for missing work while providing voluntary COVID-19 testing for employees.
“North Carolina’s agriculture industry plays a critical role in feeding families across the state and around the nation,” says Andy Curliss, president and CEO of Raleigh-based N.C. Pork Council. “Throughout this pandemic, our family farmers, pork producers and processing-plant employees have taken steps to keep our fragile food supply running safely. We are grateful for the hard work and dedication they bring each and every day to provide affordable and nutritious food.“
Other industries also have stepped up during the pandemic to pivot their businesses to support essential workers by providing needed goods and services.
Burlington Industries and other North Carolina textile manufacturers have ramped up efforts to address protective-gear shortages.The Greensboro company began collaborating with New York-based designer Ralph Lauren to change its focus from fashion to making gowns for health care workers in North Carolina, New York and New Jersey. Employees at Greensboro-based Kontoor Brands switched from stitching Wrangler and Lee jeans to producing gowns for patients and clinicians. High Point-based Culp, a mattress-fabrics manufacturer, and Winston-Salem apparel company Hanesbrands began producing millions of masks for doctors and nurses each week.
In western North Carolina, staff at child care facilities including the Long’s Chapel Child Enrichment Center, Haywood Community College Child Care Center and Kid Connection Child Development Center continue to provide day care services for the children of front-line workers. Employees take regular temperature and health checks of students and workers while frequently cleaning, washing hands and maintaining strict social-distancing rules whenever possible.
At East Carolina University, professor Jan Tillman and four other faculty members from the College of Nursing have volunteered with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services to match available nurses with long-term care facilities facing staffing shortages.
Other businesses around the state have stepped up in unique ways to show their appreciation for front-line workers.
Cary-based N.C. Healthcare Association partnered with locally owned restaurants to provide meals to health workers caring for patients. Uber began offering millions of free rides and food deliveries for essential employees. Autobell Car Wash has provided more than 2,000 free washes and interior cleanings daily for North Carolina’s front-line workers since early March.
Fighting the pandemic has truly been an intensive, community-enthralling effort where every act, big or small, has been a positive step toward recovery. Luckily, North Carolina’s well of “helpers” during tough times runs deep.