Frontline Champions: Essential Workers

We honor the essential workers who have worked selflessly and tirelessly on the frontlines of the pandemic response. WebMD presents the CDC Foundation the Frontline Champions Health Heroes award on behalf of essential workers nationwide.

When COVID-19 began its rampage across the country last spring, Americans' attention turned to the everyday heroes in our midst -- the doctors, nurses, retail clerks, teachers, firefighters, and farmworkers who have risked their own health and safety to keep us clothed, fed, educated, and healthy.

These essential workers are "the backbone of our society," says Judy Monroe, MD, president and CEO of the CDC Foundation. "They're called essential workers because honestly, society doesn't function without them."

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the CDC Foundation -- a nonprofit organization that supports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's health efforts -- has been providing critical aid to our frontline workers. When personal protective equipment (PPE) was scarce, the Foundation distributed over 7.3 million masks, gloves, and gowns to health care workers. It also provided laboratory and medical equipment, and hired over 1,000 nurses, doctors, contact tracers, and other staff members to help state and local health departments respond to the crisis.

The CDC Foundation couldn't have responded as quickly and comprehensively as it did without the corporations and individuals who financially support its work. "We had our largest year ever in donations," Monroe says. "It's only because of those donations that we were able to provide critical support to individuals and communities." For the first time, some of those donations came from children, who sold lemonade, created artwork, and performed shows to raise money for the frontline workers.

WebMD recognizes the work the CDC Foundation does in supporting essential organizations nationwide, including the Atlanta Fire Rescue Foundation, Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, South Forsyth High School, Imperial Valley Wellness Foundation, and the Paterson Department of Health & Human Services. We take a look at how these five groups continue to make a difference in communities impacted by COVID-19.

Atlanta Fire Rescue Foundation

Whenever a fire or other emergency threatens the lives of Atlanta's residents, the firefighters and EMTs of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department jump into action to help. Now COVID-19 has put their own health and safety on the line. The department responds to about 100,000 calls a year, any one of which could expose them to the virus.

"There's no way not to think about going home to your family after a shift and what you may come into contact with," says Sgt. Cortez Stafford of Atlanta Fire Rescue Station 1, which covers downtown Atlanta. "That's why it's very important as first responders that we protect ourselves, which in turn protects the public and our families."

The firefighters and EMTs needed a rescue mission of their own, which they got from the nonprofit Atlanta Fire Rescue Foundation. "Immediately when COVID happened, we created the response and recovery fund, for which we've had major support, including from the CDC Foundation. We started getting supplies that were in a national shortage -- masks, gloves, cleaning supplies," says Shirley Anne Smith, executive director of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Foundation.

Beginning in late April 2020, the CDC Foundation sent more than 3,000 care kits full of necessary items, including hand soap, disinfectants, and surface cleaners. Over a 3-month period, the Atlanta Fire Rescue Foundation provided three kits to each firefighter and staff member, which they could not only use on the job, but also take home with them.

So far, these efforts -- plus the hazmat suits, N95 masks, safety glasses, and gloves the first responders wear to every call -- have helped to keep most of Atlanta's firefighters healthy. "We have been fortunate to have had a very limited number of members who tested positive for COVID," Smith says.

She adds that many of the firefighters have told her how thankful they and their families were for the supplies. "I think it gave their spouses and loved ones peace of mind, knowing that the Atlanta Fire Rescue Foundation was there to take care of them."

"For these [kits] to get sent directly to the men and women on the frontlines was definitely a lifesaver," Stafford adds. "I know I appreciated it and my family appreciated it."

Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council

COVID-19 has left its mark on all Americans, but particularly so on Native Americans, who are four times more likely to be hospitalized and nearly three times more likely to die from the virus than are white people. The inequities are stark.

"We definitely found that to be the case in Montana," says Dyani Bingham, public health officer at the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council. Though Native Americans make up less than 7% of Montana's population, they have accounted for 36% of the state's COVID-19 deaths. In September 2020, the Northern Cheyenne tribe of Wyoming was holding an average of one funeral a day.

Each one of those deaths tore a hole in the fabric of these close-knit communities.

"I think nearly every Native American family has lost someone or known someone who has lost someone," says Bingham, who lost a member of her extended family, as well as one of her colleagues at the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council.

The Council is the unified voice that represents nearly a dozen tribes in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho on a variety of issues, including health. When the pandemic began, it mobilized immediately to determine what challenges the tribes faced.

Since then, the Council has held monthly virtual site visits with each tribal health department to assess their needs, and has provided weekly data surveillance reports to keep tribal communities informed about the number of positive COVID-19 test results in their midst.

Working alongside their own team members have been five surge staff members -- two epidemiologists, one training coordinator, one communications specialist, and a statistician -- provided by the CDC Foundation. These additional staff have offered assistance and training with contact tracing, as well as educational materials on hygiene and other COVID-19 prevention methods. Bingham calls them a "huge asset." "They have been a wealth of knowledge and have built great relationships in a short amount of time with the tribes we serve."

The CDC Foundation also provided more than 50,000 articles of PPE -- including face masks, shields, lab coats, disinfectant spray, and hand sanitizer -- that the Council distributed to their tribal communities.

The Foundation's assistance has helped the Council get a better handle on the pandemic, but Bingham says systemic changes are needed as well, and Native American health professionals should be involved in making them. "There's such a unique perspective and experience that we have and bring to the table," she says. "We are the best advocates for our own health."

South Forsyth High School

At the start of every school year, Kelsey Parent welcomes a new group of students and prepares to head off another wave of misinformation. The students taking her epidemiology class come in asking about conflicting information they have gleaned from social media or people they know, like, "masks don't work" or that COVID-19 is no worse than the flu. "The spread of misinformation is its own pandemic," Parent says.

In the 4 years since Parent started teaching the class at South Forsyth High School in Cumming, GA, she's made it her mission to improve science literacy and prevent her students from growing into misinformed adults. She likens her efforts to "planting a seed that spreads into a forest." "Educating students now leads to a better educated society in the future," Parent says.

Now she's spreading the message across the country. With the help of the CDC Foundation, Parent is consulting with the CDC to develop a curriculum to help other STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) educators teach public health related to COVID-19. The project grew out of the CDC's Science Ambassador Fellowship program, in which Parent has participated and is now a peer leader. During the program's workshops, she trained with epidemiologists and collaborated with other educators to develop STEM lesson plans.

The new COVID-19 curriculum will cover the typical kinds of questions students have, including: What exactly is a pandemic? How do you test for disease? How is public health data collected and used? And why is contact tracing so important?

Each downloadable lesson module will answer one of those questions through an interactive video lesson. Then, students will be asked to apply what they've learned in an activity featuring a real-world situation.

"This is a curriculum that's going to help students understand public health," says the CDC Foundation's Monroe. "It's really forward-thinking in its approach."

Parent's aim is to send kids off with a solid foundation of scientific information that they can then share with their peers. Her ultimate wish is that her students become so passionate about the subject that they pursue it as a career. "We really need more students to consider STEM careers, including public health," she says.

Imperial Valley Wellness Foundation

You may not have heard of the Imperial Valley, but there's a good chance you've eaten something grown in this agricultural region in the southeastern corner of California, just north of the U.S.-Mexico border. The area is known as "America's Winter Salad Bowl" because it produces more than $2 billion worth of crops, including lettuce, cabbage, beets, and carrots each year.

Despite this bounty of food, residents of the Imperial Valley suffer from food insecurity. Roughly 40% of the county's children don't have enough to eat. More than 1 in 5 people in the region live in poverty. Add to that the hundreds of farm workers who cross the border from Mexico each day to perform low-wage jobs in the fields. When COVID-19 arrived, it was a disaster waiting to happen.

"It's been very difficult for our farming community, and for our community as a whole," says James Garcia, program committee chair at Imperial Valley Wellness Foundation. This past summer, the Imperial Valley's main hospital, El Centro Regional Medical Center, was overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases.

Garcia and the other members of the nonprofit Imperial Valley Wellness Foundation (IVWF) have been working to help vulnerable populations in the county get through the pandemic. Thanks to a $150,000 donation from the CDC Foundation, the IVWF has been able to grant money to the Imperial Valley Food Bank, Cody's Closet (which provides clothing, household items, and hygiene products to those in need), House of Bread Ministries (which distributes meals), and Cancer Resource Center of the Desert.

Through these grants, the IVWF has made life a little easier for residents of this border county. "We're proud to be able to provide benefit to our community in any way that we can. We're grateful to have entities that contribute to us, so we can contribute to groups that are making a big difference out there," Garcia says.

Paterson Department of Health & Human Services

A crisis is underway in Paterson, NJ. The state's third largest city, located a half-hour northwest of Manhattan, has seen a surge in homelessness. With a population of about 145,000 residents, the city's homeless numbers in 2020 grew to more than 400, up 26% from the previous year. The arrival of COVID-19 created the potential for a humanitarian disaster.

"Homeless people don't have any place to wash their hands, to wash their clothes, to use the bathroom. They don't have the proper PPE," says Tenee Joyner, project manager at the Department of Health & Human Services in Paterson. "With COVID-19, a lot of folks are losing their homes and are on the street." Just as the need for temporary housing rose, some of the city's shelters shut down because their staff lacked basic protective supplies and COVID-19 medical support.

That's when the CDC Foundation stepped in, providing the city's homeless shelters with masks, gloves, lab gowns, and disinfectants, which early in the pandemic were hard to come by. They also sent in doctors and nurses to administer exams and rapid COVID-19 tests to people coming into the shelters. It was Joyner's job to direct those supplies and personnel to where they were needed most.

Medical personnel provided another valuable service, refilling prescriptions and providing health checks to prevent chronic conditions like high blood pressure from spiraling out of control. "It was a time when a lot of people couldn't get to a doctor's appointment -- even people with insurance," Joyner says.

The CDC Foundation has enabled Paterson's shelters to safely keep their doors open with less fear of the virus spreading. Without their help, "I truly don't know where we would be," Joyner says.

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WebMD Feature Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on January 07, 2021

Sources

Alliance Healthcare Foundation: "Food insecurity is a real problem in San Diego and Imperial Counties."

Billings Gazette: "'Until the enemy passes' – COVID-19 tears through Northern Cheyenne reservation."

CDC: "COVID-19 Hospitalization and Death by Race/Ethnicity."

CNN: "Inside California hospital overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases."

Dyani Bingham, public health officer, Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council.

James Garcia, Imperial Valley Wellness Foundation.

Judy Monroe, president and CEO of the CDC Foundation.

Kelsey Parent, epidemiology teacher, South Forsyth High School, Cumming, GA.

Montana Public Radio: "More than One-Third COVID-19 Deaths In Montana Were Native Americans."

Paterson, NJ: "Home."

Paterson Times: "Paterson is grappling with a homelessness crisis."

Reuters: "Mexican farmworkers crammed into border tunnel despite contagion risk."

Sgt. Cortez Stafford, Atlanta Fire Station 1.

Shirley Anne Smith, executive director, Atlanta Fire Rescue Foundation.

Tenee Joyner, program monitor and project manager, Paterson New Jersey Department of Health and Human Services.

The Desert Review: "Annual county Crop Report shows significant decreases."

United States Census Bureau: "QuickFacts: Imperial County, California," "QuickFacts: Paterson city, New Jersey."

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