Imagine that you tested positive for COVID-19. But if you isolate at home, you’ll miss work. And if you miss work, you won’t be able to afford groceries.
Whenever there is an infectious disease outbreak, Minnesota's local public health departments are required by state statute to supply people who are having trouble isolating with essential services (like groceries) – so they can stay home and reduce community transmission.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Taylor Rogers, Tara Rickard, Anne Semenak, and others did just that. The work was heartbreaking and rewarding. Below they share their story.
Whenever there is an infectious disease outbreak, Minnesota's local public health departments are required by state statute to supply people who are having trouble isolating with essential services.
Each day the Minnesota Department of Health sent Hennepin County Public Health a list of people who’d tested positive for COVID-19. The epidemiology team then tried to do case investigation and contact tracing with these individuals. One question they asked people is whether being in isolation was affecting them financially. If the answer was yes, residents’ names were sent to the essential services team.
The team’s first go was to help people problem solve. Did they have friends or family who could help them get essential services? Did they know how to use Shipt or Instacart? If not, the team determined how they could assist.
“The main thing we ended up doing was providing grocery deliveries,” says Taylor. “Beyond that, we helped with rent, mortgage, and prescriptions. We also assisted people with maintaining utilities like keeping the phone on or making sure the Internet stayed connected because their kids were doing distance learning.”
The team recalls dozens of highlights and lowlights.
“There was a gentleman who didn’t know anything about technology,” said Tara. “He was frustrated, he was scared. We got him everything he needed. I think we even got him a little cake. But his wife passed.”
“I remember an elderly woman with COVID-19 who was the caregiver for her frail husband with dementia,” said Anne. “We were trying to have a conversation with her but she didn’t trust the government. She was a refugee from a young age and had limited English. We were concerned because she was the one with COVID and was very ill. She was also a proud woman who did not want to ask for help. At one point she mentioned that her husband liked ice cream. So, we sent her a care package of ice cream and it opened the door.”
“There was another resident, an elderly woman who ended up being sick for six weeks,” adds Anne. “She was so sick she couldn’t get out of bed and her fever was so high she needed someone to do her laundry. We ended up buying her new sheets and nightgowns.
“We were very hands on and adaptive when situations would come up that were a little out of the ordinary,” says Taylor. “There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. With our diverse population in Hennepin County, being able to be flexible and adaptable was essential.”
One challenge the team faced was language and cultural differences. They often relied on interpreters to help them.
Another challenge was speaking with people who were sick, then finding out that they’d died. “It takes a toll on you mentally,” says Tara.
The fast pace also proved difficult, at times. At the beginning of the pandemic, about 10% of people who’d tested positive reported that isolating was affecting them financially. As months passed, it was closer to 40%. At the peak, the team was triaging 20 to 30 new residents per day.
“I really wanted to make sure people were not spreading COVID-19 to others,” says Tara. “I’d do whatever I could to help them stay home. There were times I’d work to midnight to make sure residents had breakfast food.”
For Anne, who manages the essential services team, the response underscored the value of emergency preparedness. Although every infectious disease outbreak is different, “It’s so helpful to have a plan so you don’t have to start the entire planning process in that moment,” she says. “Know that you’re going to use 80% of your plan and that the other 20% needs to be flexible and adaptable to the world around you.
For Tara, the COVID-19 response taught her the value of teams.
“In the beginning, the essential services team was a big cluster of different people and personalities,” she says. “By the end, our team was like a family. If anyone was going through something in their personal life, we were there. It’s an experience I will never forget.”
The response also ignited Tara’s passion for emergency services. “I don’t care what emergency it is,” she says. “I’ve found that this is the best work for me. I work best in chaos. I work best when I’m helping people.”
Helping people is what’s stuck with Taylor. “Even something that to me might feel small, that I take for granted — when you’re living paycheck to paycheck or have one income — is significant. Providing essential services had an immediate, tangible impact,” he says. “There are a lot of populations that slip through the cracks when it comes to qualifying for assistance — a single adult with no kids, working couples. What I remember most is the overwhelming gratitude we received.”
“When people are in crisis, the worst and the best of people come out,” he adds. “I saw how often the best is what came out. It really taught me to remember to approach each situation as a new interaction that I can’t base on any of my previous interactions.”
The Hennepin County essential services team is still responding to COVID-19. If you or someone you know has tested positive and needs help staying in isolation: