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Members of the Sonoma County epidemiology team Jenny Mercado, Lucinda Hammond Gardner, Anna Mayfair-Diaz, and Kathryn Pack, in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, March 16, 2022. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

They are some of Sonoma County’s unsung heroes of the pandemic

They worked behind the scenes as the pandemic unfolded, often preventing the tragedy from becoming more tragic. They assembled data and made sense of its complexity. They comforted the elderly and the poor. And they ventured into parts of our community where the risk was the highest and the damage was the greatest. No one will ever know how many people didn’t die or get gravely ill because of their efforts, but this much is certain: They are the unsung heroes of the pandemic, and they made a difference. Here are some of their stories.

County Epidemiology Team

Health program manager epidemiology team Kathryn Pack in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, March 16, 2022.  (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
Health program manager epidemiology team Kathryn Pack in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, March 16, 2022. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Kathryn Pack and the county’s epidemiology team were at the fore of the county’s battle against the pandemic. Pack, Sonoma County’s health program manager, oversaw six epidemiologists, known colloquially as “epis,” and a data management staff of four.

Their duties included managing all COVID-19 data on cases, testing, vaccines, variants, hospitalizations and deaths. The team has populated the county's data dashboards, produced surveillance and outbreak reports and kept public health leadership and the community up-to-date on the latest virus trends.

The team has also conducted investigations on the county's more than 83,000 COVID-19 cases to determine source of infection. They’ve tracked outbreaks in vulnerable populations, and helped inform infection prevention efforts. And they’ve conducted vaccine hesitancy research and mapped virus hot spots and vaccination levels to guide outreach strategies for the vaccine and testing teams.

Epidemiologist Jenny Mercado in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, March 16, 2022.  (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
Epidemiologist Jenny Mercado in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, March 16, 2022. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Epidemiologist Jenny Mercado worked closely with individual labs to ensure all testing was entered into the state lab portal. She also reviewed and reported other data related to the pandemic including hospitalizations and deaths from self-harm/suicide, drug overdoses and other causes of death.

She said the first year was difficult because the local COVID-19 surveillance network had to be built from scratch.

“Initially, there was no case/contact tracing database, so we collected, cleaned, reviewed, and entered all of the case and contact data manually,” she said.

Overnight, the team found itself essentially playing the Superbowl of public health crises.

“There was a transition from a normal work week to working every day that was initially difficult,” Mercado said. “This came at the same time that all of our kids were home and we were also acting as teachers. This was the most challenging time for work-life balance.”

Lucinda Gardner, another epidemiologist, was in charge of reviewing, tracking and analyzing the data for all COVID-19-related hospitalizations and deaths. She also developed internal systems to flag for review any death following COVID vaccinations.;

Epidemiologist Lucinda Hammond Gardner in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, March 16, 2022.  (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
Epidemiologist Lucinda Hammond Gardner in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, March 16, 2022. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

“The first local cases and first deaths were awful — signaling that COVID was actually here and threatening out community,” she said.

Gardner said “pandemic response has required 7-day a week attention, so my laptop has traveled with me on all family trips and even one fire evacuation.”

As head of the epi team, Pack coordinated her staff’s efforts and synthesized all that data for public health officials, the Board of Supervisors, state health officials, the media and the public. She continues to maintain data on the county’s hospital capacity dashboard — a pandemic metric — and assists with case investigations and data analysis.

Pack said COVID-19 continues to be “one of the greatest public health threats” facing the county. She said her team will continue tracking COVID-19.

“We will also be focusing on using data to understand the other impacts of the pandemic and deferred care on the community's mental and physical health and well-being,” she said.

The epi’s efforts were instrumental to the work of Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase and Dr. Urmila Shende, the county’s vaccine chief. Aside from Pack, Mercado and Gardner, epi team also included Julia Rubin, Aleksandr Bukatko, Robin Hauschner, Jonathan Brock. Data management specialists were Ashley Taranto, Dawn York, Josie Nowak and Anna Mayfair-Diaz.

Cheryl Fox, owner Fox Home Health

Cheryl Fox, President and CEO of Fox Home Health, in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Tuesday, March 15, 2022.(Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)
Cheryl Fox, President and CEO of Fox Home Health, in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Tuesday, March 15, 2022.(Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

Before the pandemic, Fox Home Health provided private home health care services to residents of skilled nursing and non-skilled homes. Cheryl Fox, a registered nurse and the agency’s founder and CEO, is a longtime Santa Rosa resident with deep roots in the community.

As the pandemic dragged on, many of Fox’s clients became increasingly isolated in elder care facilities, and her staff could no longer visit. In May 2020, Fox donated nursing staff hours for local COVID-19 testing. Her organization also helped train staff of unlicensed care agencies on infection control protocols to prevent outbreaks.

When COVID-19 vaccines became available in late 2020, Fox’s agency was asked to return to senior care homes to begin inoculating the county’s most vulnerable residents. At the time, the federal government had given that responsibility to large pharmacies, but that process took several weeks to gain momentum.

Later, when the vaccine became more widely available, Fox Home Health took over operation of one of the county’s most crucial battle grounds in the local vaccine effort; the Roseland Vaccination Clinic. In all, Fox’s staff have logged more than 60,000 vaccinations, and she becomes overcome with emotion when she thinks back on the past two years.

“We did good work,” she said, her voice breaking. “I am so proud of my staff and what they’ve done, it brings tears to my eyes..”

Mario Castillo-Guido, co-founder of Comida Para Todos

During the pandemic, Mario Castillo-Guido saw how COVID-19 laid bare the county’s extreme economic divides, leaving many without a safety net, particularly in unincorporated parts of the county.

Castillo-Guido helped start Comida Para Todos to help meet the basic needs of Sonoma Valley families, providing food, toilet paper, diapers, facial coverings and other PPE. Comida Para Todos is powered by the work of 34 drivers who deliver food and other necessities.

Shortly after the initial shut down, lager nonprofits ceased operating, and many of Sonoma Valley’s poorest residents, especially undocumented immigrants, found themselves isolated, without work and struggling. During the first year of the pandemic, Castillo-Guido started working closely with Dr. Panna Lossy, a Sonoma County family doctor who founded IsoCare Network, a local nonprofit that helped families isolate and quarantine safely.

Castillo-Guido forms part of the front-line effort to stem the pandemic’s economic and social misery, providing families with basic food needs and connecting them with rental and emergency financial assistance.

Castillo-Guido does not mince words in describing how the county’s historic neglect of impoverished and immigrant communities led to a level of economic crisis deeper than most of us experienced. His clients were forced to work through the pandemic, as essential laborers who had to choose between staying home or going hungry.

When the omicron variant began taking hold in Sonoma County, Castillo-Guido led efforts to get rapid antigen tests to those who could least afford it. His organization helped set up testing sites in neighborhoods and apartment complexes and enlisting residents to ensure they were administered properly.

Castillo-Guido said it was a form of empowering local residents to take charge of their health needs. That’s the principle that drives Comida Para Todos, he said, “it’s done by people for the people.”

Brandi Lazorek, chief nursing officer, Providence Medical Group

As chief nursing officer of Providence Medical Group’s Northern California region, Brandi Lazorek was responsible for making sure nurses in Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino and Humboldt counties were safe and properly equipped.

From the beginning, Lazorek and her colleagues responded to the ever-evolving pandemic crisis, helping to establish systemwide protocols and procedures, stocking scarce personal protective equipment for staff and setting up drive-through test clinics.

The second year of the pandemic brought renewed hope in the form of unprecedented vaccination campaigns that had Lazorek at the forefront of setting up and training inoculators to work with nurses in high school gyms, fairground pavilions and health clinics.

It was a labor she called more “heartwarming work” than that of the first year of the pandemic. And her work in part helped the county achieve vaccination rate of 80%. “There’s optimism,” she told The Press Democrat last year. “People are helpful and thankful. That’s what health care is all about is those moments.”

Mayra Arreguin, a health promotora with La Famila Sana

Mayra Arreguin, an organizer with La Famila Sana, middle, and volunteers, Susana Alfaro, left, and Janet Valencia, finish paperwork during a vaccine clinic in Cloverdale, Saturday, April 24, 2021.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Mayra Arreguin, an organizer with La Famila Sana, middle, and volunteers, Susana Alfaro, left, and Janet Valencia, finish paperwork during a vaccine clinic in Cloverdale, Saturday, April 24, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

Mayra Arreguin is a founding member of La Famila Sana, a grassroots nonprofit that gives health and wellness support to disadvantaged Latino and Indigenous-language communities in north Sonoma County.

The group formed in response to the devastating and disproportionate impact COVID-19 had on Latino and immigrant residents. With community organizer Ezequiel Guzman at the helm, La Famila Sana and Arreguin helped families isolate and quarantine; provided masks and other PPE; and conducted testing and vaccination clinics.

Arreguin and her fellow promotora, Neidi Calvillo, regularly went into some of Sonoma County’s most forgotten and neglected neighborhoods, helping impoverished immigrants, many of them undocumented. They connected struggling residents with rental assistance and eviction protection programs, food bank donations, emergency financial assistance and immigration services.

Arreguin, who did laundry and restaurant work at a winery before joining La Familia Sana, said the work she does now is not easy and is often heartbreaking, but she enjoys helping people.

“It’s my passion,” she said. “If I help one family with rent that makes me feel like I can continue to do more for the community.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

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