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These 15 nurses have traveled from Palm Springs, California; Palm Beach, Florida; Arkansas, Ohio, Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania and more to help deliver COVID-19 vaccines to Sonoma County residents at the Alliance Medical Center vaccination site in Windsor's Huerta gymnasium on Thursday, April 30, 2021. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

Mission of mercy: Meet the traveling nurses vaccinating Sonoma County

If you had wandered through the pool area of Hotel Trio in Healdsburg late Tuesday afternoon, you might have thought they were tourists. Two relaxed ladies sharing a bottle of Josh Cellars prosecco, chatting about food, travel and family.

The truth is that the women, Audrey Daniels and Mallie Edwards, have been living at the hotel for several months now. In fact, many of the rooms at the Trio are currently occupied by visiting workers from Wisconsin and Arkansas, Michigan and Florida; from Niagara Falls, New York, and Sparta, Georgia.

“We come from all over and join together to complete a mission,” said La’Paris Price, a registered nurse from Cleveland who, like Daniels and Edwards, is contracted by the staffing agency SnapNurse.

Their mission: to immunize Sonoma County against the lethal SARS-CoV-2 virus, a massive campaign that would have been severely hampered, if not impossible, without the help of a small army of traveling nurses and support workers.

“We would not be able to run our site if not for the SnapNurses,” Petaluma Health Center director of nursing Amy Anderson said, referring to the center’s vaccination clinic at the Petaluma campus of Santa Rosa Junior College. “It takes a special person to leave their family and travel across the country for three months to support this effort. Most have children at home, or siblings, or parents. They have lives and families they’ve left to do this.”

Traveling nurses Mallie Edwards of Cincinnati, left, and Audrey Daniels of Houston  drink sparkling wine at their Healdsburg hotel Tuesday, May 4, 2021 after another day of vaccinating Sonoma County residents.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Traveling nurses Mallie Edwards of Cincinnati, left, and Audrey Daniels of Houston drink sparkling wine at their Healdsburg hotel Tuesday, May 4, 2021 after another day of vaccinating Sonoma County residents. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Critical source of help

Sonoma County has become their home away from home.

Some of the visiting health workers have been here practically from the start of the county’s vaccination campaign. When the state of California announced in January it would use federal COVID funding to staff medical personnel at local clinics, the county immediately requested 138 people. It was an ambitious number that Ken Tasseff, who coordinates local vaccination sites, never expected the state to fulfill.

To Tasseff’s surprise, the California Department of Public Health approved all 138. The roster is now up to 219, spread among a dozen sites in the county. The visitors have registered, inoculated and monitored well over 100,000 county residents at county-supported clinics, though most vaccine recipients have no idea their helpers are only passing through.

And the county pays for none of it. The federal funding covers everything from wages to payroll services.

Nurse Delena Ashley traveled from her home in Palm Springs, California to help administer COVID vaccines to Gerry Pacitti and other Sonoma County residents at the Alliance Medical Center vaccination site in Windsor's Huerta gymnasium on Thursday, April 30, 2021.  (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Nurse Delena Ashley traveled from her home in Palm Springs, California to help administer COVID vaccines to Gerry Pacitti and other Sonoma County residents at the Alliance Medical Center vaccination site in Windsor's Huerta gymnasium on Thursday, April 30, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

“The nursing would likely have been covered by FEMA,” Tasseff said, “but the initial cash flow would have been a challenging thing for the county. And finding that level of quality on our own, in those quantities, would be really challenging.”

Of the 219 current participants, 170 are employed through SnapNurse, the other 49 by a similar staffing agency called ProLink. The state pays the agencies, which then pay the vaccinators (who may be licensed RNs, LVNs, LPNs or EMTs) and administrators (typically, certified nursing assistants).

Mobilized for emergency

As coronavirus outbreaks have erupted in various parts of the country like a nightmarish game of Whac-A-Mole, health officials have hustled to bulk up defenses in hard-hit areas. In January, California was a hot spot — including Sonoma County, which experienced its highest spike in new cases from Jan. 4-13.

The traveling nurses who mobilized to come here did it for a variety of reasons. Many say they love to travel and see new places. And though uprooting for a finite period of time is never easy, some said the work is laid back compared to the hectic floor of an understaffed hospital.

Vickie Tran, a 31-year-old Texas native, was working in the transplant ICU at Houston Medical Center — a facility, she said, that receives “the sickest of the sick.” By halfway through the pandemic, half of that ICU had been converted to a COVID ward. It was intense.

“I guess the stress of ICU kind of made me forget why I became a nurse in the first place,” said Tran, who delivers shots at the Providence St. Joseph clinic at Grace Pavilion. “Now, doing vaccinations, I see healthy people, I get to talk to them, they’re excited about the vaccine. It kind of reminded me of why I’m in this profession.”

Nurse Treasure Havior, who traveled from her home in Georgia, administers the COVID-19 vaccine to Anthony Vargas at the Alliance Medical Center vaccination site in Windsor's Huerta gymnasium on Thursday, April 30, 2021.  (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Nurse Treasure Havior, who traveled from her home in Georgia, administers the COVID-19 vaccine to Anthony Vargas at the Alliance Medical Center vaccination site in Windsor's Huerta gymnasium on Thursday, April 30, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Pay cut reshuffles ranks

The staffing services pay for accommodations and the money is good, better than a lot of stationary jobs.

Or at least it was when the nurses first arrived. Their paychecks have shrunk since then. A CDPH representative confirmed that “contracts concluded in March and new contracts were put in place at a different rate due to a change in the scope of work.”

Those rates were markedly lower. One SnapNurse said her hourly pay went from $95 to $50. Resentful of what they considered a bait-and-switch, many of the visiting workers went home and had to be replaced.

Among the motivations of those who remain is an innate gravitation to community service.

“I’ve always volunteered my time,” said Mohamed Daramy, an RN from Philadelphia who has been working at Alliance Medical’s clinic in Windsor since the second week of February. “I lived in Florida for a time, and I always volunteered for hurricane response. I’ve gone where needed. In January, California seemed to really need help.”

“For so long you’ve been on the dark side of trying to help people manage and fight their way through COVID. Even for us as nurses, it’s unspeakable. And now you find yourself on a lighter side, and a more joyous side.” ― nurse La’Paris Price

Daramy, 41, was born in Sierra Leone, in West Africa. He came to the U.S. from Gambia under refugee status in 1999, and sometimes needed help along the way.

“I’ve never felt a victim,” Daramy said. “But I’ve seen how certain generosity people did in my life, how that made me feel and impacted me. So it’s been put in me, if I see somebody suffering, I give a helping hand.”

Price, who supervises the rest of the SnapNurse staff at Santa Rosa Community Health’s clinic, also at Grace Pavilion, talked about the satisfaction in knowing you are delivering a vital service.

“For so long you’ve been on the dark side of trying to help people manage and fight their way through COVID,” she said during a break from work, her protective mask unable to obscure her freckles or her kind eyes. “Even for us as nurses, it’s unspeakable. And now you find yourself on a lighter side, and a more joyous side.”

Mohamed Daramy, from left, works with Ramomda King, who traveled from Arkansas, and Briel Ward of Cincinnati to help clients check in to the Alliance Medical Center vaccination site in Windsor's Huerta gymnasium on Thursday, April 30, 2021.  (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Mohamed Daramy, from left, works with Ramomda King, who traveled from Arkansas, and Briel Ward of Cincinnati to help clients check in to the Alliance Medical Center vaccination site in Windsor's Huerta gymnasium on Thursday, April 30, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Far away from home

It would take a lure that powerful to draw people away from home for so long. Price, who got here in January and is contracted into July, doesn’t have a partner or children. But she is part of a tight-knit extended family in Cleveland that includes her mother, siblings, aunts and uncles.

Price is feeling the separation lately. Her grandmother tested positive for coronavirus three weeks ago, and died last Saturday.

Daramy has a wife who works as an analytic chemist and two young children — 9-year-old girl, 2-year-old boy — back home in Philly. He has been home once in about three months, receiving a few days off to support his wife as she grieved following her father’s death.

Site director Mohamed Daramy, right, who traveled from his home in Philadelphia, teaches Erica Alvarez, who lives in Arizona, the check in system at the Alliance Medical Center vaccination site in Windsor's Huerta gymnasium on Thursday, April 30, 2021.  (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Site director Mohamed Daramy, right, who traveled from his home in Philadelphia, teaches Erica Alvarez, who lives in Arizona, the check in system at the Alliance Medical Center vaccination site in Windsor's Huerta gymnasium on Thursday, April 30, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

“I think it’s been much harder on her,” Daramy said. “That’s some of the strain of being here. The work, I can do this long enough. But for her, it’s hard to go do things with two children.”

The family copes with frequent phone calls and FaceTime check-ins. “My 2-year-old, half the time he doesn’t want to talk to me because he’s on his YouTube Kids,” Daramy said. “He’s on ‘Baby Shark.’”

Friday was Daramy’s last day here. He was supposed to work until early June — many of the state contracts will expire around that time — but is leaving early to accompany his wife to Africa for his father-in-law’s funeral.

Bonds among co-workers

Removed from their support networks, the traveling vaccinators have formed new bonds. Practically all the SnapNurses stay at Hotel Trio or at the Hyatt Regency in Santa Rosa, busing to and from their work sites. Some gather to hang out or go for walks after work. Tran said she and some other nurses hiked in Muir Woods last weekend.

Daniels, a Houston nurse practitioner currently working the Providence St. Joseph clinic, has a captive companion: her Yorkshire terrier, Pancho, who is staying with her at the Trio. Other guests at the hotel call him “the SnapNurse dog.”

Traveling nurses Audrey Daniels of Houston, left, and Mallie Edwards of Cincinnati drink sparkling wine at their Healdsburg hotel Tuesday May 4, 2021 after another day of vaccinating Sonoma County residents.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Traveling nurses Audrey Daniels of Houston, left, and Mallie Edwards of Cincinnati drink sparkling wine at their Healdsburg hotel Tuesday May 4, 2021 after another day of vaccinating Sonoma County residents. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Some of the out-of-town helpers are frequent flyers. Mallie Edwards, an LVN who lives in Cincinnati, spent much of the early part of the pandemic hopping all over the East Coast and the South. Working on a COVID ward in Altoona, Pennsylvania, in March of 2020, she once attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on someone she knew to have the virus. Somehow, Edwards never tested positive.

For many of the visitors, though, this is their first stint as a traveling nurse.

The pandemic, which has created an unprecedented need for the rapid dispatch of health staff, has been a boom time for staffing agencies. SnapNurse’s revenue went from $3 million in 2019 to $88 million in 2020, when it deployed more than 10,000 workers to 1,000 health care facilities. The company didn’t exist before 2017.

ProLink declined to answer questions about its growth.

Standing out and settling in

Overwhelmingly, the travel nurses are people of color. About 90% of SnapNurses are African American, the spokeswoman confirmed. The nurses interviewed for this story know they stand out in Sonoma County, where less than 2% of residents are Black, but they said they have generally been welcomed with affection and gratitude.

That bottle of prosecco the nurses enjoyed at the Trio? It was gifted to Daniels by a tasting room manager after her husband, who stayed with Daniels for a month, boasted of her role in vaccinating.

Relocation may take some adjustment. Tran misses her cat and her immigrant mother’s Vietnamese food. Daramy, the Philadelphia native, said he can’t get used to restaurants closing before 7 p.m.

Mostly, though, the visitors have taken to Wine Country.

Sonoma County Medical Association executive director Wendy Young, center, arranges for Chelsey Childers to get her COVID-19 vaccination with nurse La'Paris Price, left, at the Santa Rosa Community Health vaccination clinic at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa on Friday, April 23, 2021.  (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
Sonoma County Medical Association executive director Wendy Young, center, arranges for Chelsey Childers to get her COVID-19 vaccination with nurse La'Paris Price, left, at the Santa Rosa Community Health vaccination clinic at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa on Friday, April 23, 2021. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

“Out of everywhere I’ve traveled to, I think Sonoma County stands out the most,” Price said.

She mentioned the scenery, but also the resilience she’s heard from people who have survived recent fire seasons, and what she calls the “compassion” the county has demonstrated in laboring to get its residents vaccinated.

Daniels is enamored with the North Bay’s hills and vineyards, too. She grew up in West Palm Beach, Florida, and while that would seem to be a world apart from Healdsburg, she said it comforts her to be surrounded by countryside again. Still, after more than three months away, Daniels misses her husband and her two adult children. She is starting to think about ending this unique assignment and returning to Houston.

“Getting back home and laying in my bed,” Daniels said with a sigh. “The hotel is nice. I don’t have a problem with the bed. But it’s nothing like my Sleep Number.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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