Being a teacher, Caroline St. Pierre said, was never something she expected to do.
But in the past year, the Portland Fire Department lieutenant has had to take on that role at home, where her kids are learning remotely.
Like most of us, St. Pierre has had to adjust to a home life turned topsy-turvy by new routines designed to help corral the coronavirus. But unlike many others, who have transitioned to work-at-home environments that keep them out of the pandemic’s path – and who may continue to work that way for the foreseeable future – she has also had to continue her very public-facing job with the city.
St. Pierre isn’t alone. There are thousands like her: essential workers who have continued to report to work every day for the last year, regardless of the threat posed by the pandemic and often because of it.
These are a few of them.
The emergency room doctor
Dr. Tom O’Mara, an emergency medicine physician at Mercy Hospital in Portland, said it was the early stages of the virus that created the most uncertainty in his world.
A tent was set up outside the hospital, with the expectation Mercy would be “swamped” with COVID-19 cases right away, O’Mara said. Eventually, they adjusted to the caseload and the hospital staff has been dealing the best it can.
“It’s been a continuous process of how to deal with the numbers,” he said.
Because he’s in the emergency department, O’Mara isn’t necessarily dealing with patients who come in with COVID-19-related problems. Usually, they’re people who have had injuries.
But, O’Mara said, his department is not immune to the dangers of COVID-19.
“There’s a growing list of physical complaints that could be COVID,” he said. “And if (the patients) have those we have to treat them as if they might have COVID.”
It requires the staff to maintain a “high level of suspicion,” O’Mara said, that the person they’re seeing may have the virus and treating them accordingly.
While the overall frequency of COVID-19 intakes is dropping, at any point there still may be one or two patients who have the virus in the emergency department.
O’Mara, who said he sees it as a great benefit to have been able to continue going to work when so many others have been forced to stay home, had a scare of his own when he was exposed to a patient who eventually tested positive for the virus. While he never contracted the disease, he was forced to stay home for two weeks.
The patient arrived in a coma and had to be put on a breathing machine, which O’Mara said is dangerous because the doctors and nurses have to be right in the patient’s face to do that. And even though O’Mara was wearing a mask and face shield, and this happened at the very early stages of the pandemic, the hospital decided to send him home.
“We weren’t sure how to proceed if we were exposed,” he said. “We didn’t know how dangerous it was. I felt like an athlete on the sidelines during the playoffs. We weren’t sure.”
O’Mara, who has been at Mercy for 11 years, said this was actually a good opportunity for the hospital to begin developing the policies that it needed. He said the emergency department is especially adept at handling dynamic situations, and potentially dangerous ones.
“That’s how it started, we were experimenting,” he said. “Now we have clear algorithms to treat certain things in certain ways. When you can fall back on policies it helps to minimize variations and that’s where we are now.”
He also said he realizes he was lucky to be able to continue working during the pandemic and recognizes that some people can suffer from the isolation imposed on them by either having to work alone at home or being suddenly unemployed.
“It’s been an interesting year, and we’re doing it to be over and get back to normalcy,” O’Mara said. “But I also wonder how many of these things will linger? Will we always wear masks when we see patients?”
The playground inspector and farmer
Keith Forest’s job wasn’t completely changed by the pandemic, although he did admit it became more challenging.
Forest, who is the playground safety inspector for the city of Portland, said the hardest part of the job during the pandemic has been dealing with the “moving target” of Center for Disease Control expectations.
When the pandemic hit a year ago, he said, he was starting the process of opening up city public areas like basketball and tennis courts. But that had to immediately be put on hold because of the virus.
“Everybody was hot and heavy on closing up,” Forest said. “When it first came last year, we were going around barricading the parking lots so not too many people would park to be outside.”
Forest said the early stages of the lockdown provided an opportunity to go around and “get things up to par,” but almost immediately it seemed the city’s open spaces began to open back up. So work they had done, including taking down basketball hoops to discourage crowds from gathering, had to be done again.
“Nobody has lived through something like this,” he said. “So everyone was waiting on the CDC to come out with guidelines, and then follow it exactly as told. But at first, nobody could get a handle on what we were supposed to do.”
He said uncertainty persisted, especially in the early stages, as people remained concerned about what the virus was, how easily it spread, and what to be on the lookout for. And the impact and uncertainty of the pandemic weren’t just confined to his city job – it has all but wiped out his side business as a farmer.
Forest’s farm, Tater’s CSA in New Gloucester, produces vegetables and eggs that he has traditionally sold to Portland restaurants. It’s doing barely a quarter of the business that it usually does.
“A lot of little farms especially sell mostly to restaurants,” Forest said. “You grow what they want. Things like spigarello (a type of broccoli native to Italy), the public doesn’t usually buy that. So that’s been a wicked challenge.”
But despite the risks involved of being an essential worker throughout the pandemic, he also said he wouldn’t have wanted it another way.
“When you’re a municipal worker, it’s different,” Forest said, noting that union contracts specify about working during states of emergency to keep the city operating. “People are working from home, and when they look out the window and see you’re doing your job, it kind of gives them the sense things are getting there. If we didn’t do our jobs everything would fall apart. Roads wouldn’t be plowed; you couldn’t get anywhere.”
The forestry supervisor
Luke Lermond tried to find the silver lining in the challenge of working during the pandemic.
Lermond, Portland’s forestry supervisor, said he was among probably some of the least exposed city workers. But that didn’t mean his work was without transmission risks.
“There was so much unknown early on,” he said. “It seemed that there was so much unknown information at the time … there was always a concern.”
Lermond said the small crew of the forestry unit has the benefit of largely working outside and even saw the pandemic as a bit of an opportunity. They were able to go into downtown areas that needed tree removal or pruning that crews couldn’t have normally reached because of spring and summer crowds.
“There were a few days we only saw a couple of people,” he said. “It was a ghost town.”
Lermond said there was a noticeable wave of cabin fever that came over city residents, as public places were closed and people were advised not to gather outside. But eventually, he said, people started getting stir crazy and had to get out and do something.
“In April and May parks usage increased, which made that a challenge,” Lermond said. “With a lot of people being at home and working, looking out their windows, and seeing street trees, it created a flush of calls. We had more calls than normal. It increased our workload by quite a bit. We’ve been trying to keep up, but it’s been a challenge.”
Portland Police Sgt. Eric Nevins said there a few precautions for his work. Obviously, there are masks, but Nevins said there’s always the uncertainty of going out on a call and not knowing if a person they interact with has COVID-19.
“You’re listening for those flags, if it’s known exposure it’s a different mask and eye protection,” Nevins said. “I know a lot of us struggle with the face protections.”
Nevins, who has been with the department for almost 23 years, said the personal protective equipment created an added difficulty in communicating with the public and makes it harder to deal with situations and confrontations.
“You get a reaction from people if you get close to people,” he said. “It’s disarming to see people afraid of other people in their proximity.”
Nevins noted police officers and first responders are routinely exposed to dangerous conditions, including hepatitis, tuberculosis, HIV, and AIDs.
“I’m not concerned about COVID because we get exposed to every other thing,” he said. “But I am concerned because I don’t want to infect other people. But I don’t have a fear of interaction with other people. I don’t want to be exposed to blood or get bit, obviously, but that’s the stuff we live with all the time.”
The Police Department also had the added challenge of civil rights protests occurring in the city last summer. Nevins said there were a “lot of emotions going on” and the challenge of dealing with thousands of people “getting in our face.”
“You try to take precautions, but then get surrounded by this sea of humanity,” he said. “Then there was the looting we had to deal with and address as well. And people were throwing bottles of urine and water at us. It was challenging. I was more concerned about safety in general during the protest than because of COVID.”
The grocery store manager
Not every public-facing employee who has had to work throughout the pandemic was dealing with emergencies. But for Adam Cardinal and the nine employees at Legion Square Market in South Portland, working through the year of the pandemic has been every bit as dangerous.
“We as a business sat down with all the employees and we had to make a decision, can we do this or not?” Cardinal recalled about the outset of the pandemic.
He said the employees decided they wanted the store to remain open and committed to making sure it was a safe environment. He praised the way employees have remained in personal bubbles and haven’t put themselves in danger. As a result, the store hasn’t had a single case of the virus.
Cardinal said Legion Square Market was ahead of the curve on implementing safety measures, including requiring safety measures for customers who came into the store. For example, at the outset they instituted a “no outside hands” rule, meaning customers had to use disposable gloves provided to them. Later, they made masks a requirement before the CDC acted.
“We’re a small environment, a small, local mom-and-pop store, and a big part of it was making sure the people doing this day in and day out felt safe to do it,” Cardinal said.
In February, the market was recognized with a Keeping Us Safe award from the city’s Business and Economic Development Committee for “creating a safe way to keep open during the pandemic for their employees and customers.”
Cardinal said the small staff was dedicated to working together and keeping the store open, and eventually, the safety precautions began to feel normal. He said sanitizing carts and baskets, requiring masks, and being nimble about finding in-demand items became second nature.
The impact of the pandemic on supply and demand also changed the way Cardinal does his job.
“I used to be very much 80 percent planning and 20 percent reacting, but now it’s the other way around,” Cardinal said. “All of a sudden something may not be available, so how do we find it?”
Cardinal said the biggest worry now, a year later, is that complacency could set in as people start to believe the end is in sight. He said while the vaccine is beginning to make its way to Mainers, he doesn’t want people to feel too comfortable and begin to drop their guard.
“We’re committed to keeping the protocols in place until that calculation of enough immunity exists that we can back down,” he said. “That in-between phase will provide challenges.”
St. Pierre, the Portland Fire Department lieutenant, said she has had to learn how to deal with the daily grind of working and living amid the coronavirus. But she also said the extra challenges have taken a toll.
“I leave my job, and I’m exhausted,” she said. “And then I come home and have to be a teacher.”
“Everyone had all these extra challenges, and everyone would give you a different story,” St. Pierre continued. “Mine is working full time, and now being a teacher, which is something I never signed up for and I’m not good at.”
St. Pierre’s full-time job with Ladder 3 on Stevens Avenue routinely takes her away from home, which she said caused the most concern for her in the first year of the pandemic.
“It was hard,” she said. “I guess it’s still hard. I definitely wouldn’t consider this over. It was definitely challenging, and there definitely were some scary things. Work was scary for a while, not knowing what to expect, or if this was something I was going to bring home to my family.”
Uncertainty and often conflicting information about the virus throughout the first half of the year added to the stress and concern, she said.
Communicating with people in public also became a challenge because of the PPE that had to be worn, St. Pierre said, with emergency medical technicians having to wear full suits and face shields if a patient presented COVID-19 symptoms.
“That was an extra thing we had never done before, and it’s hard to do patient care in a suit,” she said. “You look like you’re from another planet. You look different, you don’t look friendly, and it’s hard to hear someone in a mask. That presents a whole new challenge to our job.”
An added challenge was that fire stations generally have sleeping and dining quarters, which had to be altered to accommodate social distancing.
But the hardest part wasn’t working in PPE or having to create additional space in the station: it was the uncertainty that came from the virus – uncertainty that lingers 12 months later.
“I just remember not wanting to see the patients (at the start of the pandemic),” she said. “I remember being nervous around these patients, and just not knowing what we’re bringing back to our stations and our homes.”
People still have lives and families away from the job, she noted, and because of that are often exposed to everyday illnesses, which adds to the already heightened anxiety on the job.
“I have two kids, so if they get a cold, I’m getting a cold,” St. Pierre said. “I don’t want to infect others, but everyone is nervous about people coughing. People are still nervous about this disease and are they going to get it? So where do we draw the line, do we just stay home for everything? … I guess we’re still feeling that nervous feeling. You don’t want to be the one that’s going to infect other people.”
Overall, the past 12 months have been both exhausting and boring, she said, especially for her kids: “Their fun has been taken away. There’s not a lot you can do right now. The whole year, kind of a dud year. It’s been challenging.”
“In general,” St. Pierre said, “this year was just tough.”