On a typical day, Carrboro firefighter and Interim Training Officer Will Potter would be scheduling group training sessions, attending meetings and helping community colleges line up certification classes for aspiring firefighters.
But COVID-19 has thrown a wrench in things: Community colleges have closed their campuses, all of his in-person meetings have been canceled or gone virtual and group training sessions don’t allow people to stay six feet away from each other.
Potter is one of many essential employees who must continue working during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a firefighter, he’s exempt from Gov. Roy Cooper’s stay-at-home order, which only allows residents to leave home for essential activities, like buying food.
Potter said the department has even had to shift their community fire safety and prevention education, which they typically hold in schools, online.
“As an organization, we put pretty big priority on being members of the community,” he said. “Now, this does make that more difficult.”
Going around town is a lot different, too, he said.
“Usually if you go by, the bay doors are open, and we’re encouraging people to come in and see the apparatus and interact with us in a non-emergent setting,” he said. “We don’t have that luxury because of the social distancing requirements.”
Because all fire department staff is considered essential, he said he and most of his coworkers still need to go into the station.
“We still have to respond,” he said. “It’s not business as usual, but our staffing remains the same.”
Will Quick is a patrol lieutenant in the Carrboro Police Department, where he’s worked for nearly 26 years. The pandemic hasn’t altered his work schedule either — he said he continues to work the same 12-hour shifts he always has.
But he said it has changed how he and other police officers carry out their day-to-day work. He said since Carrboro prioritizes being a bike-safe and walkable community, many officers do a great deal of traffic enforcement to discourage speeders and unsafe driving.
To minimize contact with other people, he said they’ve rolled it back.
“For some officers, that had them chomping at the bit,” Quick said. “Traffic enforcement tends to be a very popular thing among officers.”
He also said officers have been enforcing Carrboro’s stay-at-home order, which the Town jointly issued with Orange County, Chapel Hill and Hillsborough on March 27.
“As far as our role with the enforcement, it’s as it always has been. It’s discretionary. Our first function is to try to encourage compliant behavior,” he said, adding that officers often secure compliance just by speaking and explaining the rules to people.
Chris Atack, the Carrboro Police Department’s captain of administration, said officers have been focused on educating residents about the order and encouraging them to follow it voluntarily.
If people don’t follow it, he said violating a health order is a misdemeanor, which gives officers the authority to ticket or arrest those who violate it.
“That is not something that we would like to do,” Atack said. “I don’t know of anybody who really wants to do that, especially given that we’re trying to keep away from folks as well so we can all stay healthy.”
Generally, he said officers have always spoken to people at a distance to ensure their safety, but the reality of their work may mean they can’t stay six feet away from people.
“If we have to engage with someone and you actually have to go hands-on, we don’t get the luxury of saying, ‘Well, they got that going on, so nah, we’re not going to do that today,’” Quick said. “We got to take the situations as they come and be very adaptable and adjust on the fly.”
And the experience isn't unique to public safety workers.
Kristin Olson, a medical scribe at UNC Physicians Network, changes out of her work clothes in her garage every time she gets back home from work. After walking inside, she immediately throws them into her washing machine.
“I don’t want to expose my house,” she said.
Olson normally works in an internal medicine clinic in Johnston County, but lately she’s been working in a variety of places — including a day in a drive-thru COVID-19 testing clinic in Wake County.
“It’s honestly wherever they need the workforce at this point,” she said.
She worked as a greeter. When cars drove up, she screened people, asking whether they had appointments, which people needed to get tested for COVID-19, or if they’d already been evaluated by doctors.
“We have to ration the amount of resources we do have,” she said. “And sadly, not every single person is going to get tested at this point.”
She asked patients to roll their windows down about 2 inches to minimize the risk of exposure to the health care workers who’d be testing them. Afterwards, they’d go on to get tested. They’d first get swabbed for the flu, Olson said, and only if the test came back negative would they be swabbed for COVID-19.
To minimize her own exposure, Olson wore gloves and an N-95 mask she brought with her from home. Others, she said, received surgical masks. After greeting each patient, she said she had to change her gloves, but she’d keep her mask on.
“A lot of people were just random strangers just driving up to see, ‘Oh, what is this?’” she said. “Of course, you shouldn’t be driving up here if you see people wearing personal protective gear.”
Now she’s working as a scribe in a respiratory diagnostic center. Normally, she would accompany doctors into patients’ rooms and write down relevant medical information, but now she remains outside their rooms, which she said allows them to save their gear.
Though she doesn’t work directly with patients, Olson said her work often gets stressful.
“You’re still in the same building,” she said. “I can still see a patient and see them coughing, and it’s in the air.”
She said the risk of exposure also forces her to think twice about being around family and friends. She worries especially for her family, with whom she’s living during her gap year until she leaves for medical school.
“I just tell them, ‘Stay away from me,’” Olson said. “I have no idea if I’ve been exposed.”
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