Categories
Uncategorized

The new normal: Life during the coronavirus

When Esther Tiferes Tebeka and her 15-year-old daughter returned home from Wuhan, China, last month after being on lockdown, the Palo Alto mother was relieved to escape the epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak and get back to a normal life.

She thought the ordeal was behind her, but now weeks later, Tebeka is trapped for a second time by the virus that has spread across the globe. She is among the nearly 7 million residents in six Bay Area counties who were ordered to shelter at home at the start of this week to prevent the further spread of COVID-19, which has spiked in the region.

The coronavirus outbreak has created a new reality along the Midpeninsula: Schools have shut down, Stanford University students have been ordered off campus, all concerts and sports events have been canceled, tech campuses are empty and most residents are now stuck at home. Life as we knew it has come to a screeching halt.

As residents adjust to the new normal over the next few weeks, we’ll update this page with personal stories of how ordinary people are coping during these extraordinary times.

We talked to Tebeka as well as a health care worker on the frontline, a gig worker weighing the risks of making deliveries, an older adult living behind closed doors, Stanford University students facing eviction, an artistic director who had to cancel his first premiere and a restaurant owner offering discounted and free meals to those in need. Here are their stories.

‘There’s no such thing as overreacting to this.’

— Esther Tiferes Tebeka, Wuhan quarantine survivor

By Sue Dremann

About the above photo: Palo Alto residents Chaya and her mother, Esther Tiferes Tebeka, right, ride on a plane from Wuhan, China to California, where they were quarantined for 14 days to ensure they tested negative for the coronavirus. Photo courtesy Esther Tiferes Tebeka.

For Palo Alto resident Esther Tiferes Tebeka, the current COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in Santa Clara County is déjà vu. Tebeka was in Wuhan, China when the coronavirus outbreak began back in January. She and her eldest daughter arrived there for a one-month visit starting Jan. 1, just one day after the first case was announced.

The panic, fear, isolation and bare grocery store shelves in the Bay Area are all too familiar, she said. Although she remained positive throughout her initial ordeal and two weeks of quarantine on an air reserve base in southern California, she feels less positive back in the U.S.

“When I’m shopping, I no longer feel safe. I predicted what’s happening now. This crazy shopping has created the best chance for the coronavirus to spread out,” she said.

She sees the aisles packed with frantic shoppers at the Mountain View Costco, and she can’t understand why people aren’t protecting their faces.

“If they were in Wuhan, trust me, they would put on a mask. Do you think the virus is going to spare you because you are rich or because you are strong?”

In Wuhan, everyone wore face masks. Tebeka also still wears one when she goes out. She doesn’t agree with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s advice that wearing a mask won’t help prevent contracting the disease, she said.

Tebeka is a healer, a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner and acupuncturist. Her business, Tiferes Medical Acupuncture, experienced cancellations due to coronavirus fears.

“Overall, there’s a big hit. It’s going to be a challenge this year. But we still have to pay the rent,” she said.

Her children are doing alright with their home schooling, using online services for their lessons. She is managing her household by paying the children for their chores and making sure they do their homework, she said.

Tebeka didn’t wait for her children’s school to officially close. She took her younger daughter and son out of their private school even before the mandated school closures; she purchased a plane ticket and flew her eldest daughter home from boarding school in Chicago after classes were suspended. On short notice, the one-way ticket was costly, she said, but higher costs and inconveniences are things she takes in stride in the COVID-19 age.

“You can’t take a chance,” she said.

The same concerns she felt in Wuhan she feels today in Palo Alto, and she expects things to get worse as the virus expands and people become more scared.

“The danger is not necessarily the coronavirus, per se, but the panic and chaos,” she said.

After seeing what happened in China, Tebeka said people can’t be too careful.

“There’s no such thing as overreacting to this,” she said.

As one of the first people to return from China and to live in quarantine, Tebeka also faced people’s concerns after her release. She had outed herself publicly, granting multiple interviews while in quarantine and afterward, so everyone knew she had come from infected Wuhan.

At first, she felt the eyes upon her of some people who were a bit wary. Tebeka sought to assure people she was safe to be around by self-quarantining for an additional week at home.

Those concerns seem to have abated, she said. “That’s a good sign,” she said.

This profile was also published in the March 20 print edition of the Palo Alto Weekly.

Email Palo Alto Weekly reporter Sue Dremann at sdremann@paweekly.com.

‘Yes, we are scared’

— Kerry Boynton, health care worker

About the above photo: Kerry Boynton, a medical assistant at a Mountain View medical clinic, said her workplace has made extra safety precautions due to the coronavirus. Image courtesy Kerry Boynton.

By Linda Taaffe

On most days during her 22 years as a medical assistant on the frontline at a medical clinic in Mountain View, Kerry Boynton has greeted a steady stream of patients at the front desk, gotten them settled into an examination room and taken their vitals.

That all changed on the week of March 16. The lobby is empty. The halls are quiet. And nobody off the street is walking through the doors.

On Tuesday, March 10, the internal medicine clinic locked its downtown doors and canceled most in-person appointments scheduled for the next two months as a precautionary measure to protect potentially at-risk patients from contracting the coronavirus. (Many of the appointments will be conducted over the telephone instead.)

“Suddenly, it’s a ghost town,” Boynton said. “We only have one door open, and it’s monitored by our managers. And you’re not allowed to even enter the building if you have any cold or flu symptoms. So unless there’s some emergency, we don’t want people coming in.

“But if we don’t have patients coming in, what are we doing here? All of us employees are very worried. It’s a big concern.”

The sudden change seems especially amplified because during previous weeks, the clinic saw increased foot traffic from people worried that they may have come down with the disease, she said. Boynton estimated that the clinic screened about four people a day to see if they should be tested for COVID-19.

“And mind you, I have a small clinic compared to the big hospitals,” said Boynton, whose clinic does not provide emergency care, urgent care or after-hours care and is not a testing site for the coronavirus.

Boynton said the stress level has been the most noticeable change at work.

There’s conversation about the disease all the time, she said. About every four hours, the staff has to huddle with management to get updated on the newest information that is coming out and figure out new workflows and processes depending on what kind of symptoms people coming through the doors had.

“So that’s constantly changing,” she said. “First they told us to stay 3 feet away. Then they told us 6 feet away in the early stages when they weren’t sure if it was airborne. Now we are being instructed to try and stay 3 feet away from (patients), but how do you do that when you’re taking their vital signs, doing EKGs on them, swabbing their throat for strep cultures?”

Everyone is washing their hands so often that “we all have hands that are like sandpaper,” she added.

Boynton said, at one point, many of the health care workers had to do their jobs without disposable protective masks after the clinic decided to put all masks under lock and key because of a supply shortage. The clinic needed to conserve the masks for people coming in with the cold and flu, she explained.

Earlier in March, her department received a box of masks, which she said was enough for about 13 staff members and eight doctors.

To avoid bringing potential work hazards home at the end of their shifts, Boynton said, “All of us at work, we decided that our scrubs come off almost before we even come in the door because they do get contaminated, and we don’t want to bring anything into the house with us. We are  washing and washing and washing with hot water as soon as we get home.”

This has created anxiety among everybody, she said.

“And yes, we are scared, but there’s plenty of people out there with lots of health problems that still need us … so that’s what gets me motivated to go in.”

This profile was also published in the March 20 print edition of the Palo Alto Weekly.

Email Palo Alto Weekly associate editor Linda Taaffe at ltaaffe@paweekly.com.

‘It’s kind of on us just to study for the finals at this point.’

— Undergraduate students, Stanford University

About the above photo: Stanford senior Jeffrey Chang, 21, packs up his belongings to move back home to Cupertino after Stanford University asked students to leave campus if they are able in an effort to protect students from coronavirus in Palo Alto on March 11. Photo by Sammy Dallal.

By Kali Shiloh

Daniel Nguyen, Kendall Williamson, Haile Michael and Emily Yuan were among the handful of students still living on campus at Stanford University by March 13. Most of their 7,000 classmates left in droves two days earlier after the university canceled in-person classes and asked undergraduate students to leave the campus by the end of winter quarter on Friday, March 20, if possible, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The university announced that classes will not meet in person during spring quarter until further notice.

“If they tell us to stay home, and then they tell us they want us to come back to campus, (plane) tickets are going to be very expensive,” Nguyen said as he paused from his four-person game of basketball on the virtually vacant campus.

The freshman said he plans to live in his dorm until his finals are over at the end of the week.  

“It’s kind of on us just to study for the finals at this point,” he said. “They’re giving us review materials, so people are pretty much looking at that, but no one really has an incentive to watch the (pre-recorded) lectures.”

Williamson, a sophomore who planned to fly home to Georgia, said he has struggled to take advantage of the online resources and lectures that professors have recorded in empty lecture halls for students to watch online.

“That face-to-face interaction is a much better learning experience than online,” he said.

Without classes to attend, Williamson said he has more freedom during the day but spends a lot of time in his dorm. While most of his friends flew home last week, the cost of leaving early was prohibitive for him.

“I would have to buy another plane ticket to go back home,” he said, explaining that he’d booked his flight for after finals week before in-person classes were canceled. “Do I really have the finances to do that right now? Probably not.”

For Michael, going home means traveling halfway around the world to Ethiopia.

“There’s 11 hours difference between my home and here,” said the freshman. Just the thought of managing his finals and the beginning of spring quarter from such a great distance convinced him to continue living in his campus dorm indefinitely, despite the threat of the coronavirus.

Yuan, who lives in the same dorm as Michael, said her roommate faced a similar situation but decided it was better to leave campus.

The moment Stanford announced its move to all online classes, her roommate bought a ticket home to Hong Kong, Yuan said. The logistics are proving to be formidable, she added.

“My roommate was saying she has her final, but it’s at 3 a.m. for her,” Yuan said. “If she’s (in Hong Kong) doing online classes, she has to become nocturnal because all the classes are between midnight and 6 a.m. for her.”

Although the students said they support the measures taken by the university, the disruptions come at a critical time in the school year when they already are under substantial academic pressure.

“There’s a petition being signed by students for the finals to be canceled,” Michael said last week. “There are people being stressed about what they’re going to do, if they’re going to go or stay here — there’s a lot going on.”

When the spring quarter commences on March 30, the students said they are worried where they might be taking classes: Williamson could be taking Stanford classes from his childhood bedroom on the East Coast; Michael could be sitting alone in a desolate dorm.

All of them are coming to terms with the possibility of learning without going to school. None of them have experienced anything like this before, they said. They’re just trying to figure it out.

This profile was also published in the March 20 print edition of the Palo Alto Weekly.

Email Palo Alto Weekly contributor Kali Shiloh at kshiloh@paweekly.com.

‘It’s a little bit heartbreaking’

— Sinjin Jones, theater director

About the above photo: Sinjin Jones, executive artistic director at Pear Theatre, postponed his first production for the Mountain View company, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” to abide by local public health guidelines against large gatherings. Photo by Sammy Dallal.

By Karla Kane

It was supposed to be a time of celebration at the Pear Theatre in Mountain View. Tickets to the opening weekend of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” based on the popular novel, were selling well. Theatergoers, cast and crew alike were looking forward to the reception planned for Friday, March 13.

Instead, a day before the scheduled event, new Executive Artistic Director Sinjin Jones found himself alone at the theater, answering emails and calls from disappointed patrons.

Because of the COVID-19 outbreak, the California Department of Public Health had released new guidelines earlier that day recommending that mass gatherings maintain “social distancing” of 6 feet between attendees.

In the intimate Pear space, with around 80% of seats already booked, that simply wouldn’t be possible. So, Jones and the Pear board made the difficult decision to cancel opening weekend, reception and all. By the following day, Santa Clara County had banned gatherings of more than 100 people. And on the following Monday, Santa Clara was among six Bay Area counties to issue a stay-at-home order limiting all activity, travel and business functions to only the most essential need.

“It sucks, but it’s the right thing to do,” Jones told the Weekly. “People are being really lovely about understanding that it’s in everyone’s best interest. I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better. We just want to make sure we’re on top of it.”

Jones said he is holding out hope that the show might be able to go on at a later date, but the nonprofit will take “a pretty big financial hit” regardless.

“It’s not even about money for us. We’ve worked hard; we think the show is great,” he said.

Even if the production does eventually make it to the stage in the future, “There’s no way we’re going to get the number through the door to see the show that we would have otherwise,” he said.

Ticket holders have been given the options of getting a refund or donating the ticket cost back to the Pear.

“So far, we have had a good number of folks who have chosen to donate their tickets. It’s a nice feeling,” he said. “We can only hope that if and when this production gets up and running, the patrons are still as excited to see the show. Right now, the health concerns are going to far outweigh that.”

Regardless of what happens, “We will continue to pay anyone involved with the show what they’re owed, whether the show opens or not,” Jones said, adding that the people working behind the ticket counter and at concession stands are a mix of staff and volunteers.

Though the organization will suffer financially, “Emotionally, the actors and the crew have been most impacted,” he said. “It’s a little bit heartbreaking to be working so hard on a show and then to have it be ripped out from underneath people. We have a phenomenal cast; they’ve been really thoughtful and kind during this whole process.”

As news of the coronavirus pandemic has steadily spread and escalated, he said, the possibility of having to cancel performances became very real, very quickly.

“It wasn’t a surprise, but that doesn’t make it less painful. We have to keep repeating the mantra that we want to do what’s best in terms of health,” he said.

Jones said they have discussed other options for presenting the production, including recording or livestreaming performances, but due to the complications involved with theater copyrights, it is not feasible at this time.

As he worked alone in the thoroughly sanitized theater last week —”I don’t think it could smell any more like cleanser” — Jones said he was putting some things, including grant proposals, plans for an upcoming season gala and ticket sales for next season, on hold to concentrate on answering patrons’ questions and handling ticket issues.

“It’s quite the whirlwind,” the Redwood City resident said. Since joining the Pear in January, curve balls such as the coronavirus and California Assembly Bill 5, which puts new restrictions on freelance workers, have been unexpected challenges.

“It’s part of the work. As long as I feel confident we’re being responsible, it’s all worth it in the end,” he said.

Update: Since this article was published, The Pear Theatre has announced plans to livestream “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” from May 1-9.

This profile was also published in the March 20 print edition of the Palo Alto Weekly.

Email Palo Alto Weekly arts and entertainment editor Karla Kane at kkane@paweekly.com.

SHARE YOUR STORY

How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your life? We want to hear from you for an upcoming article. Describe your experience over an email to editor@paweekly.com.

‘We don’t have the option of not working.’

— Vanessa Bain, gig worker

About the above photo: Vanessa Bain, a gig worker for Instacart, has stopped making deliveries for the company to abide by the stay-at-home order issued by local public health officials on March 16. Photo by Sammy Dallal.

By Kate Bradshaw

Work is busier than ever for Vanessa Bain, a full-time gig worker who lives in Menlo Park. Recently, while making deliveries for Instacart, she did her best to reduce her risk of catching or transmitting COVID-19, sanitizing her hands often and wearing gloves.

Bain is a delivery person providing essential services to those who need food and other necessities, and is exempt from the shelter-at-home order that went into effect on Tuesday, March 17, in six Bay Area counties, including San Mateo and Santa Clara, to limit social interactions among residents for three weeks.  

Bain works primarily for Instacart but also occasionally delivers for Caviar, Uber Eats and DoorDash. Her husband works for Caviar, Uber Eats and Postmates.

Instacart is an app that customers can use to order groceries or other goods and have them delivered.

Demand for delivery services in areas such as Seattle, the Bay Area and New York City has risen about twentyfold recently, she said.

As a shopper and deliverer on the ground, she said, this means that there are more orders placed at higher volumes than usual. Plus, the items many customers request are in limited supply — hand sanitizers, face masks, toilet paper and Tylenol — which can be frustrating for both shoppers and people making the orders.

“Our work has been incredibly busy and incredibly demanding,” she said.

Because of the increased orders, Instacart and other delivery-based app businesses have begun to offer contract workers extra incentives to make deliveries. For the first time in a long time, the demand for shopping and delivery is greater than the supply, she said.

But these incentives have a dark side, said Bain, who’s become known widely as a leader in the campaign for gig worker rights.

“It’s luring us into a situation that’s actually putting us in danger,” she said.

People who work for delivery services on top of other jobs, who have other sources of income in their household, are more likely to weigh the risks of making deliveries in this area — a pandemic hotspot in the U.S. — and, wisely, stay inside instead, she said.

But, she said, “For people like myself who rely on this income pretty much exclusively to live, we don’t have the option of not working for a week, or two or three weeks, until we feel safe to work again.”

Many apps have also launched a “contactless” delivery option for customers that allow delivery workers to drop items off at the door without coming into close proximity with the customers.

But that doesn’t fully eliminate a customer’s risk of exposure to the new coronavirus, she said. The shopper and delivery workers are still coming into contact with the ordered items and with their surroundings.

“We’re still touching all of their items, carts and (pin)pads,” she said.

While a number of delivery-based app companies have issued statements that they will provide workers up to 14 days’ pay in the case of a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis, she said she wants more clarity about what that really means. What is 14 days’ pay to a contract worker who isn’t even guaranteed the minimum wage? And what about all the people who come down with symptoms that align with COVID-19 but aren’t able to get tested?

*(Note: On March 17, Bain decided to follow the shelter-at-home order and stopped making deliveries.)

This profile was also published in the March 20 print edition of the Palo Alto Weekly.

Email Mountain View Voice reporter Kate Bradshaw, a sister publication of Palo Alto Online, at kbradshaw@mv-voice.com.

‘Right now, I’m praying.’

— Serkan Karabacak, restaurant owner

About the above photo: Palo Alto restaurant owner Serkan Karabacak has created a free and low-cost menu at Tuba for those in need while the stay-at-home order is in place over the next few weeks. Karabacak said the community has helped him, and now he wants to help the community. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

By Lloyd Lee

For Palo Alto restaurant owner Serkan Karabacak, shutting down his business during this crisis is not an option.

As a small business owner, the community has always been there for him, Karabacak explained. Now, he wants to do his part. Instead of scaling back operations at his restaurant Tuba, Karabacak has chosen to keep all of his employees on the payroll and is offering discounted and free meals to those in need.

“People have always come to support me … we have to help each other,” Karabacak said.

Along with offering takeout and delivery, Karabacak will be serving free meals that can be picked up from his Turkish restaurant at 535 Bryant St. for the duration of the stay-at-home order. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., customers in need can come to Tuba for a free lunchbox, which will have rice, hummus and chicken satay. The offer also applies to his San Francisco Tuba restaurant at 1550 California St.

Customers won’t have to provide any income statement or proof of need.

“They just need to mention what their situation is,” Karabacak said.

On the other days of the week, the restaurant offers the same lunchbox, all day, for $5.50.

Karabacak, who also owns the Pastis and Cafe Brioche on California Avenue, opened Palo Alto’s Tuba in January 2019, replacing Tuts Bakery & Cafe. He also manages a third Tuba location in San Francisco’s Nob Hill neighborhood.

The restaurant owner said he’s used to challenges. Before he claimed his humble stake in the Bay Area food scene, Karabacak was a fresh college graduate from Turkey who arrived here in 2012 without knowing much English.

He enrolled in a language program, pursued his master’s degree at DeVry University, and with his penchant for food and talking to people, soon decided to venture into the restaurant business.

“I started in this business as a waiter at Cafe Brioche,” Karabacak said.

During the pandemic, sales at his Tuba restaurant in Palo Alto have fallen about 65% to 70%, Karabacak said.

“Sales are really down,” he said. “And (there are) no people. No one can come in. Customers can’t come order in the restaurant.”

Despite the decrease in sales, Karabacak refuses to let go any of the approximately 35 staff members he employs at his five restaurants.

“I can’t fire anyone,” he explained. “We’re trying to stay strong. Right now, it’s time to support each other.”

Karabacak also is serving donated meals to around 120 seniors at Palo Alto’s Stevenson House.

How long he can continue his operations under the financial strain of the new restrictions is still uncertain.

“I’m really worried about rent and my employees,” he said. “I’m hoping our government will solve this earlier, but I don’t know. Right now, I’m praying.”

This profile was also published in the March 27 print edition of the Palo Alto Weekly.

Email Palo Alto Weekly editorial assistant Lloyd Lee at llee@paweekly.com.

‘This is a war, and we all have to do whatever we can.’

— Howard Kushlan, entrepreneur

About the above photo: After posting a message on social media alerting neighbors that he was willing to help anyone in need during the coronavirus outbreak, Howard Kushlan has spent most of his days walking neighbors’ dogs, shopping and doing just about anything that’s needed. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

By Linda Taaffe

Howard Kushlan knows the best place to get eggs, where to find Clorox wipes, who’s in need of distilled water for their CPAP machine, which neighbor has a prescription waiting to be picked up, and just about every shopping policy at every food store in Palo Alto.

Over the past month, the Palo Alto resident has spent his days — and some evenings — helping neighbors during the pandemic as part of a growing corps of volunteer residents that he unintentionally inspired to take action after sending a call out to those in need on social media.

“I didn’t overthink it. I just put a post up saying, ‘I’m happy to do whatever you need; if you need groceries, if you need shopping, if you need supplies, whatever,’” Kushlan told the Weekly over the phone last week. “And then it just sort of caught on. Other people ran with it, and it’s taken on a life of its own.”

Kushlan said his post had about 350 likes and 90 comments last week and had inspired more than 200 residents from well beyond his downtown neighborhood to join in and volunteer to help vulnerable residents throughout the community.

He has set up a Google Doc where people can add new requests for assistance or remove requests that have been fulfilled.  

“I don’t micromanage it,” he said. “It’s awesome. People just go in and get things done. … We don’t have time to waste.”

Volunteers are doing everything from translating for non-English speaking seniors at Lytton Gardens to taking time to chat on the phone with someone who just needs to talk to coordinating the distribution of hand sanitizers to nurses.

“It runs the whole gamut,” said Kushlan, who was preparing to help someone move the next day after shopping for groceries for a neighbor and taking a dog for a walk.

No one is more surprised by how one post on the social-media site Nextdoor could have snowballed into such an enormous effort than Kushlan himself.

“What’s incredible is it’s metastasizing in the best kind of way,” he said. “I’m stunned by the volume of people who genuinely want to help. It’s been awe-inspiring.”

Kushlan said since the stay-at-home order, he’s been focused on answering every call and doing every possible thing he can when somebody makes a request.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty, and so many people are out there that are scared and want help,” said Kushlan, who grew up in Palo Alto and now runs Crux, a marketing and political consulting firm.

“My view is this is a war, and we all have to do what we can. With a crisis like this, I think there’s no time to wait for instructions. You’ve got to step up with whatever your skill set is,” he said.

He said he’s learned a lot through this unexpected period of volunteering. One woman from a senior living center called him really scared because she needed distilled water for her CPAP machine.

“I didn’t even know those machines needed distilled water,” he said. The water was tough to find, but he finally tracked some down.  

“I just go to different stores like Piazza’s or Safeway or Ace Hardware that I know, looking for supplies,” said Kushlan, who does one shopping trip at a time. “Everyone at the stores knows me now.”

Kushlan said that, two weeks ago, going shopping was like an “apocalyptic” experience. Now, he says about waiting in line,”once you’re inside, it’s like a very lovely calm.”

Kushlan, who was just a few blocks away from the World Trade Center in New York City during 9/11, said this coronavirus outbreak is like nothing he’s experienced.

“I was out taking a walk with my mom this morning, and it’s like there’s this enemy out there that we can’t see. It’s so bizarre. It’s unfathomable,” he said.

Kushlan said one silver lining from this experience is that he’s gotten to know his neighbors.

“I have to tell you, I’m someone who doesn’t necessarily get involved with the neighborhood. I was one of those people who felt, ‘It’s nice here, but I don’t know my neighbors,’” he said. “In times like these, you have to step  outside your comfort zone, and that’s when people’s best is brought out.”

This profile was also published in the April 3 print edition of the Palo Alto Weekly.

‘It’s scary because (I’m) in the high-risk demographic … and you don’t want to go this way.’

— Millie Chethik, older adult

About the above photo: Millie Chethik waters plants on the balcony of her Palo Alto home where she has been living in isolation since the earliest cases of the coronavirus were confirmed in Santa Clara County in February. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

By Linda Taaffe

Millie Chethik thinks she just might be able to learn Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on the piano because, these days, she explained, she has plenty of time to practice the challenging piece. While most Midpeninsula residents started sheltering at home on March 17, Chethik has been voluntarily hunkering down inside her Palo Alto home ever since the earliest coronavirus cases were confirmed in Santa Clara County.

“I’ve been kind of in isolation, really, pretty much,” the 80-year-old said during a telephone interview. “My husband recently had a surgery, so he’s vulnerable. And it was his wisdom that really made me take this seriously.

“He was the one that said, ‘Millie, as my caregiver, I don’t want you to expose yourself to groups.’ So the first thing I did was I wrote to my choral director, and said, ‘You know, I can’t come to rehearsal.’”

Her current schedule has her on a very different pace than her typical routine, which included social activities almost every day of the week. Chethik said she was a regular at events at the senior center, an active participant in her book club, performed in a choral group and participated in a slew of other activities.

She tries not to think too much about being confined at home.

“I think it takes its toll, but you know, you try to do other things to work around it,” she said.

Chethik said she’s turned to the internet for socializing.

Her book club now video conferences its meetings over the internet to discuss the latest titles.

“It worked well. You know, it’s socially distancing but still connecting,” she said.

Chethik said she’s trying to coordinate the same set up for other activities, as well, such as her neighborhood’s homeowners association meeting and possibly activities that were typically held in person at Avenidas senior center prior to its temporary closure.

Chethik said when she does leave the house, it’s typically to shop for necessities or to take a walk.

“When I have to go shopping, I just try to wash my hands as often as possible and just generally keep away from people,” she said.

She’s also learned to call stores ahead to schedule her shopping on days when the shelves are restocked.

“It’s scary because (I’m) in the high-risk demographic,” she said. “You don’t know how many years you have left anyway, and you don’t want to go this way.”

Even though she and her husband are living behind closed doors, she doesn’t feel as if they are all alone.

“My neighbor knocked on my door the other day and said, ‘Are you guys all right?’ You know, he is very worried, and it was very kind of him to stop by and ask,” she said. “I don’t know, maybe people are being kind in the beginning, but then if it gets really, really nasty, things may change.”

Chethik said she’s never experienced anything like this in her lifetime — not even during the polio outbreak in the 1940s.

“I had polio when I was 4 years old, but I was too young to understand,” she said. “My mother was trying to do everything she could to keep me out of harm’s way. She kept me away from public swimming pools … but it was such a bad epidemic at the time, and they didn’t have any vaccine until a few years later.”

Chethik said her friends all have had different takes on the coronavirus outbreak.

“I had one friend who said, ‘You’re just germ crazy,’ and I had another one who said, ‘You know, you shouldn’t leave the house,’” she said. “I think we have to believe in the scientists, what they’re telling us. Not the politicians.

“It’s a scary situation. We’ll get through it, I’m sure, but it’s very scary. And who knows how many people will die in the meantime.”

Find resources for seniors during the coronavirus crisis here.

This profile was also published in the April 3 print edition of the Palo Alto Weekly.

‘This is so surreal.’

— Neera Ahuja, doctor and researcher

About the above photo: Dr. Neera Ahuja is a doctor and researcher at Stanford Hospital working on the front line with moderately and seriously ill patients battling the coronavirus. Photo courtesy Stanford Health Care.

By Sue Dremann

The impact of COVID-19 surrounds Dr. Neera Ahuja every time she goes to work at Stanford Hospital, where moderately and seriously ill patients with the virus lay in hospital beds fighting to overcome the disease.

Ahuja and the staff she oversees work long hours to try to help these patients. And she knows that each time she or another staff member interacts with a patient, they also risk becoming infected by the highly contagious virus. The spectre of infection is on the minds of everyone she encounters. But she said she’s invigorated by the dedication of her colleagues, their ability to push through exhaustion and fear, their willingness to take on extra loads of responsibility and the hope for potential treatments, which she is a part of trying to find.

“The first time I had to walk into a room with a patient who potentially had COVID-19 was three weeks ago,” Ahuja said during a recent phone interview. “The test turnaround was longer then. The patient was very symptomatic.”

On the drive home, she thought about what could happen if she brought the virus to her family. Ahuja has young children and an elderly mother-in-law.

“This is so surreal,” she recalled thinking.

The patient turned out to be negative for the coronavirus, she said, but the concern is still on everyone’s mind. Stanford is caring for dozens of COVID-19 patients, and a few medical providers have developed symptoms or have been quarantined.

As chief of the Division of Hospital Medicine, Ahuja must help prepare the hospital for any reduction in staffing due to sickness or quarantine, if staff test positive but have no symptoms.

Protective gear — gowns, masks, gloves, goggles or face shields — can do only so much. The emotional toll on the 44 faculty members she oversees is one of the most difficult things she must deal with, she said.

“It’s hitting them hard. Seeing the emotional struggle of my colleagues … there’s a lot of anxiety,” she said.

Ahuja said she also is urging staff to take personal time and to get enough rest so there is balance in their lives and they can avoid burnout — a difficult task in a crisis.

The hospital environment has changed because of COVID-19, she said. Everything is more remote. There’s no lingering in the hallway to talk, as staff seek to reduce contact that could spread the disease.

“I’m in Zoom meetings all day long,” Ahuja said.

No one truly understood how fast COVID-19 would come on, she stated in a March 27 medicine perspective in Medline Magazine. The hospital had a large surge of non-COVID patients in November and December, which got staff thinking about how to gear up for the coronavirus if it came to the area.

In January, they had more conversations about which wards would be designated for coronavirus patients, but it wasn’t until March 10 that the hospital received its first confirmed COVID-19 patients. Then, everything went into high gear, she said.

The hospital started preparing for how it would function if there was a surge of patients — and how it would function if staffing was down 40% or even 70%. Some other hospitals have already seen a 40% decrease in staff, she said.

Medical students, who have been removed from the clinical setting to protect them from the disease, are volunteering in many other ways to help existing staff, she said. They’ve offered to help with carrying supplies and babysitting children of faculty, who can then be freed up to work.

Ahuja is also the principal investigator of an experimental drug trial for remdesivir, which could be used to fight the virus. If the global trial is successful, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration could approve the drug’s use in a month or two for moderately and seriously ill patients, she said.

Being on the forefront of hope is exhilarating, she said.

“The wonderful thing is the science. Without scientific research, there is no way to know where we would go,” she said.

This profile was also published in the April 10 print edition of the Palo Alto Weekly.

‘One of the things we’re giving them is peace of mind.’

— Jeanne Salem, Pet cab driver

About the above photo: Tenisha Benavidez, Adobe Animal Hospital lead assistant for the outpatient department, and April Smeraldo, a registered veterinary technician at the animal hospital, help stabilize Mack, a dog with problems in his legs, on a gurney that Jeanne Salem, founder of 360 Pet Cab, is holding in place outside the Adobe Animal Hospital in Los Altos on April 15. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

By Linda Taaffe

Jeanne Salem can tell you just about every way to bathe a cat, even those that may be feeling a bit grumpy. It’s knowledge she recently learned to help reduce the potential spread of COVID-19 while transporting pets to and from veterinary clinics throughout the Bay Area in her specially outfitted pet cabs.

Salem, who launched her pet transport company, 360 Pet Cab, in early 2019, has partnered with a handful of local animal hospitals to help people whose pets need vaccines and urgent medical care while the stay-at-home order remains in effect. It’s a rare, no-contact transportation service that brings her to the Midpeninsula several days a week.

“The calls I’m getting are from pet owners who are isolated at home with pre-existing conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19,” said Salem, who pivoted from a career in the corporate world to the pet transportation industry after her own cat was diagnosed with lymphoma and required multiple trips to the vet. “Prior to the shelter-in-place orders, many of our customers were working with us to shuttle their pets to and from the vet for non-emergency care. Now, it’s mostly all emergency care.”

Over the past couple of weeks, Salem has ferried an assortment of pets, including a 10-pound pup whose owner recently underwent heart surgery and is unable to leave the house for any reason.

Salem said each animal delivery requires a lengthy list of precautionary measures that begin before any of the company’s six employees even pick up a pet at a client’s home.

“The precautions we’re taking are similar to the same protocols as paramedics,” said Salem, whose lead medical assistant, a paramedic, designed the pet cab interiors with features like portable stairs and secured oxygen tanks and developed safety protocols using best practices from human emergency-medical-transport standards.

During the coronavirus crisis, the company has been looking to the American Veterinary Medical Association and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to stay updated on proper safety measures.

“We treat every case as if the dog or cat has COVID viral exposure on its fur,” she said.

Before she and her vet tech board the cabs, they are required to put on gloves, a mask, safety glasses and gowns — a process she calls “garbing up.”

The back of the van is prepped with a disposable and waterproof tarp on which the pet carrier is placed.

Pet owners also are sent a list of safety guidelines that must be followed, including bathing their pet prior to pickup using a variety of methods recommended by Salem’s 360 Pet Cab.

“This can be the tough part. Some cats can tolerate baths, but some cats can’t,” Salem explained. “We give them a protocol on how to wipe them down with some soap and then remove it later.”

If the pet is in complete distress, and it’s an emergency, Salem makes an exception to that particular guideline.

When the shuttle arrives for pickup, the animal must be in a crate outside the house so that the Pet Cab driver and accompanying vet tech don’t have any contact with the owner, Salem said.

“We want to make sure that everybody’s protected,” she said. “We don’t want the virus to transfer to us or be on a surface in our van that spreads to the vet, so we’re always working with that.”

After each transport, Pet Cab brings the vans back to the dispatch center in San Jose for a deep-cleaning that starts in the interior with alcohol wipes, followed by vacuuming, followed by a hot-water-and-bleach cleanse and ventilation. Each two-person shuttle team discards their soiled gowns in a bag, and when the next call comes in, the process starts all over again.

Salem said the extensive, and sometimes exhausting, cleaning routine hasn’t been the biggest change in her business over the past few weeks.

She said the need for the delivery of prescription pet food, flea medication and other medicines has skyrocketed. Most of her business is now centered around deliveries. Salem said she makes at least three trips a week to pick up prescription items in the Palo Alto area.

“There’s a lot of people who are isolated at home and they want (pet) prescription deliveries, which I never had requests for until now,” she said. “ I’m just like DoorDash. I literally drop off items at the door and leave.”

Salem said prescription items are sometimes difficult to order online from sites like Amazon or Chewy. Because she has a partnership with Adobe Animal Hospital in Los Altos and Sage Veterinary Centers in Redwood City, she can pick up prescriptions for clients of those clinics and deliver the items the same day.

“Since COVID hit, a lot of people don’t want to leave their house. They’re scared,” said Salem, who also is concerned about possibly being exposed to the virus. Salem said she finds herself concentrating on things that she typically wouldn’t give much thought to, like not touching her face or taking off her shoes before she goes into her home.

Despite the unexpected adjustments, Salem said she believes her business will come out of this crisis stronger. She’s already working on a business plan to provide virtual check-ins with clients and plans to continue making prescription pickups.

“One of the things we’re giving them is peace of mind.”

This profile was also published in the April 17 print edition of the Palo Alto Weekly.

‘It was a monumental task that required all hands on deck.’

— Michele Lew, CEO, Health Trust

About the above photo: Health Trust CEO Michele Lew hands Maria Goldstein, a Meals on Wheels staff driver, an empty box carried frozen food a client has returned to Meals on Wheels in Los Altos Hills on April 22. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

By Linda Taaffe

It was about 10 p.m. on a Wednesday night during the first days of the stay-at-home order when Palo Alto resident Michele Lew decided to look through her work emails before retiring for the night.

That’s when she discovered that about half of her regular pool of 36 volunteer drivers who were to deliver meals to hundreds of older and homebound adults served by The Health Trust Meals on Wheels program the next morning had canceled. It was a moment that she describes as “mayhem.”

Most of the drivers, she explained, were retirees and needed to stay at home under the order.

As CEO of The Health Trust, which has operated the free home-delivery meal program in Santa Clara County for the past 20 years, Lew had to get creative — and quickly — to fill the void, especially since demand for meals had more than quadrupled since the order took effect.

The program, which delivers hot meals every weekday and frozen meals for the weekends, is a lifeline for people who cannot cook or get around, she said.

“It was a monumental task that required all hands on deck,” said Lew, who after a few frantic late-night text messages, was able to assemble an emergency delivery team that included herself.

And so while most others were adjusting to working behind a desk at home, Lew found herself adjusting to working behind the steering wheel of her car. The next morning, Lew cleaned out her trunk and left her Palo Alto home to drive her first-ever Meals on Wheels delivery route.

“It’s been seriously the highlight of my pandemic life,” she said during a telephone interview earlier this month. “It was a chance for me to see firsthand what it is like to deliver meals and get to meet some of the clients.”

The work, she said, is more than just transporting food from one place to another. Each meal comes with a specific set of delivery instructions: Some people want their meals left at a certain location in the house; others have pets that can’t be let out the door.

“Each morning Meals on Wheels drivers get their route with instruction sheets and individual notes for each client,” she said. “So if that day you’re serving oranges, and the client can’t eat oranges, then you need to make sure you’re packing another fruit for that particular client. … Trying to figure out all that, my hat’s off to the veteran drivers.”

During the pandemic, the drivers also must follow additional safety precautions, like changing their gloves after each delivery and making sure they sanitize before and after they leave a client’s house, she added.

Lew said being able to meet the clients that her nonprofit serves has had a lasting impact. She talked about how one delivery to a bedridden senior has particularly stuck with her.

“He left his door unlocked so I could deliver the meal into his home,” she said. “When I left, I wondered if he just leaves his door unlocked all the time, and whether he’s safe. There didn’t seem to be anyone else in the house, and I thought this could be the only food that he is getting. The whole experience was very sobering.”

Lew said the biggest challenge as a first-time driver was not knowing exactly where to park.

“With the shelter-in-place, there are a lot more cars parked on the roads and so finding a place to park and then get out of the car and deliver the meal was one of the most challenging parts,” she said.

Lew said she delivered meals to about six households during her three-hour shift.

“Some of our veteran drivers can probably do about 42 deliveries a day,” she said. “I can definitely see the benefits of having veteran Meals on Wheels drivers with a routine route.”

In the week before the stay-at-home order took effect, the nonprofit delivered about 2,200 meals a week to older and homebound adults throughout Santa Clara County. By the first week of April, they were delivering 9,200 meals, Lew said.

“It is a giant job. And we feel very lucky so far,” Lew said. “We’ve been able to provide meals to everyone who has requested and needed them, but as we look out to the future, we’re getting more nervous that at some point we will hit a ceiling.”

Lew said donations also have increased since the coronavirus outbreak, but the challenge is that they haven’t increased at the same rate as meal requests.

“We don’t expect when the pandemic is over that everyone will be food secure, so we are thinking about long-term plans as well,” she said.

To fill the void while handling the uptick in demand and a decline in drivers, she said, staff members are working longer hours, and The Health Trust has redeployed staff from other departments to focus full-time on Meals on Wheels.

The city of San Jose also has provided financial support for a pilot program with DoorDash drivers who cover weekday deliveries to homeless residents who have been relocated to motels during the pandemic.

“We really scrambled that first week,” Lew said.

Now with 20 drivers and help from DoorDash, the nonprofit has been able to meet its delivery demands, she said, and she hasn’t been called back to fill another route — yet.

This profile was also published on April 24 on Palo Alto Online.