March 2021 Alumni E-News Spotlight: Alumni Aiding Communities During COVID-19
Connie Ma, Alumni and Community Outreach Officer

As the COVID-19 pandemic has spread to touch almost every aspect of our lives, many TAS alumni have found themselves involved in helping our communities in unexpected ways. Four alumni share their individual experiences of being a public health nurse, a Red Cross caseworker, an EMT, and a contact tracer. These stories are an example of resilience in the face of adversity and remind us to recommit to helping each other through this global crisis.

The public health nurse

Sheena Sihota ’99 has been a public health nurse since 2014, working in child and maternal health at the agency of Health and Human Services for the County of San Diego. “We visit first-time moms to help them with whatever they need, help them be self-sufficient and leave abusive situations if they need, and reduce the likelihood for child abuse.” Sheena’s work has a personal story behind it. “Working in child and maternal health has always been my passion. I started nursing school when my oldest was a year old, so I went through the peri-partum phase with no medical background. I’ve been where some of the moms I’ve worked with have been.”

On a typical day before the pandemic, Sheena would visit three to four mothers for one to two hours at a time, weighing and measuring kids and answering any questions that the mother had about starting solid food, what kind of diapers are best, developmental assessments, help with breastfeeding, and much more. Now, Sheena works primarily over the phone. “At the beginning of the pandemic, we were telehealth all the time. Connecting with people over video and phone is difficult. I know people feel trapped because they can’t go out, and there’s not the usual care and support they expect from their parents. I know it’s been hard for a lot of people. For example, childcare in San Diego can be quite expensive, like $2,000 per month for one child. It can be your entire paycheck.”

Sheena Sihota '99

Another part of Sheena’s job is running a COVID hotel. “We are responsible for taking people from the hospital to a hotel. Some have tested positive or are symptomatic but can take care of themselves. Others have been exposed to confirmed positives need a place to isolate for 14 days. Sometimes, they don’t have their own bedroom or a space to quarantine from their family, so they come here. In the fall, we went from having 20 requests a day to more than 100 requests a day.”

Though she is not a front-line doctor or nurse working in a hospital, Sheena has also seen her share of the devastation that the virus can wreak. “I know some people who think it’s a hoax, but I’ve literally seen a thirty-year old person turn blue before my eyes,” Sheena noted soberly. At least for her, the pandemic has had a strong silver lining. “Pre-COVID, I didn’t see my children very often, only when I brought them to school and picked them up. Though we’re now doing learning and work separately at home, I see them all the time.”

The caseworker

Andrew Bookbinder ’15 has seen the need for help firsthand. After graduating from college, Andrew moved to Los Angeles in 2019 to work for the Red Cross as a caseworker doing housing advocacy for individuals or families who have been impacted by disasters. “When you experience a home fire, there’s no designated government agency that responds to you,” Andrew explains. “As a well-funded non-profit, we try to serve immediate needs of people who have been impacted by disasters and step into that role. We provide financial assistance and partner with organizations to get them rehoused and back on their feet.”

Red Cross caseworkers at the scene of a home fire

The pandemic has reshaped Andrew’s work; not only is he restricted to meeting clients over the phone or video, but he also has fewer avenues of aid to offer. “Our partner organizations and agencies like the Department of Social Services, Legal Aid Foundation, or the Salvation Army, have all scaled back services, cut hours, or temporarily closed, all at a time when the demand for resources is skyrocketing. Even food banks have scaled back because their volunteers tend to be older. We are broadening our outreach to different organizations and figuring out creative solutions, but there’s less help available overall.”

Andrew (far right) and fellow Red Cross caseworkers

Andrew sees this as an extension of the public interest work he will pursue throughout his career. “As caseworkers, we can advocate for our clients and provide financial assistance. Sometimes, we can really make a difference. Last week, I worked with a new landlord to reduce the security deposit and first month’s rent for my clients, and that’s incredibly gratifying. Knowing that I’m helping is phenomenal.”

After the pandemic started, Andrew actually deferred law school for a year to do more client advocacy work with the Red Cross. “When I first moved to LA, I had an inkling of the housing crisis here. But working here in the community has really changed my understanding of the scope of the problem and the failure to address it on a large scale. This has strengthened my resolve to work in public interest law.” In the fall of 2021, Andrew will start law school at the University of Pennsylvania as a Toll Public Interest Scholar.

Andrew Bookbinder '15

The EMT

For the past four years, Jeremiah “Jerry” Hsu ’17 has been an emergency medical technician or an EMT for the Berkeley Medical Reserve Corps (Berkeley MRC). In May 2020, Jerry assumed the directorship of the corps as a senior at UC Berkeley. Like many university EMT groups, Jerry and his fellow students often staffed campus events and sporting events, but unlike most university groups, Berkeley MRC is chartered as a federal program and can be deployed by the university, local, or state authorities to respond to disasters. They have been active throughout the pandemic, responding to a wide range of needs in California.

Jerry Hsu '17 (far left) and fellow Berkeley MRC members

“In April, we were activated by the City of Berkeley to staff their COVID-testing center for essential workers, vulnerable populations, and healthcare workers. Our EMTs did nasal swabs and logistics until September. Starting in May, we deployed people to skilled nursing facilities when RNs [registered nurses] would test positive, and their whole team needed to isolate. In September, COVID-19 deaths in skilled nursing facilities accounted for as much of 37% of our state total, which was made worse by the staffing shortages.” In July, Jerry and fellow Berkeley MRC members were deployed by the California Medical Assistance Team to Tulare County. “For two weeks, we worked in a gigantic gym that acted as an overflow site for hospitals, treating low acuity COVID-19 patients. We worked 12 hours on, 12 hours off, and we slept on cots.” During the fall, Berkeley MRC also responded to wildfires by deploying to shelters and providing medical aid in Santa Cruz County. As of February 2021, they are working with the Berkeley Fire Department to administer vaccines at the City’s first community mass vaccination site. “As EMTs, we’re entry level medical providers, and in California, our scope is quite limited. This is the first time in the history of the US that we’re being allowed to give vaccines,” notes Jerry. 

The lowest point for Jerry and his fellow corps members was in May and June of 2020. “This isn’t what we signed up to do. Most students become EMTs because they’re pre-med, and they do work like stabilizing critical trauma patients, reversing overdoses, or performing CPR on the street. All of a sudden, we’re being deployed to bedsides in skilled nursing facilities with COVID outbreaks and parking lots to swab patients, during a national PPE shortage that forced us to reuse N-95s, isolation gowns, and face shields for days and weeks. We’re also students with our own lives, and that sudden transition to online classes was hard for everyone.”

Berkeley MRC members are administering vaccines in California

Jerry has picked up some unexpected lessons as a part of this work experience. “No matter what industry I work in, I’ve learned to work with people who have much more experience than me. I’ve been thrust into this situation where I’m working with people who have decades of experience in emergency medicine and management, and we’re sitting at the same table discussing a plan. Talk about imposter syndrome!” Jerry laughs.

“I was initially hesitant to voice my opinions, because especially with COVID, you don’t want to get it wrong and waste people’s time. But in this unprecedented kind of situation, you realize everyone around you is also figuring things out on the fly, so it’s ok to speak up and share how you can help. For a long time, I thought it would be off the table for EMTs to administer vaccines, but once I proposed it, we got the ball rolling really quickly. When you feel uncertain in these unprecedented situations, that’s when you actually have the most flexibility to propose new ideas.”

Jerry Hsu '17

The contact tracer

In fall of 2020, Leon Yim ’16 was not working at the cancer immunology lab he expected to after graduating from MIT. Instead, while waiting for a hiring freeze at school to end, he found himself working as a COVID-19 contact tracer for the MIT community. Leon’s work officially began in November, just as the US began to experience a winter surge of COVID-19 cases. “Here, we have a very robust COVID-testing program, where people test once or twice a week depending on how often they access campus. When I started, I took the Johns Hopkins Coursera course on contact tracing 101, which defines terms like quarantine, isolation, close contact, why isolate for 14 versus 10 days, etc. I started by checking in on people who were already in quarantine to see if they had symptoms after a close encounter with a positive case. But very quickly, because of the caseload, I started making the initial call to inform people they tested positive or was a close contact.”

As a contact tracer on the ground, Leon worked 9 AM to 5 PM most days, but the actual workload was off set from that schedule. Because testing began in the morning, they received new positive results in the afternoon. “At 4 PM, that’s when the day really starts. You start seeing new cases, and you get their basic demographics and information. As soon as you’re on the call and get a few names as close contacts, you’ll quickly start new sheets for your co-workers to divide up the work; after a few hours, we come back and cross-reference each other’s sheets to get a better picture. Contact tracing depends on honesty. We don’t know anything about you if you don’t share it.”

Leon Yim '16

While MIT has a very liberal leave policy where people can take up to 10 days of leave with pay, Leon still makes many calls where people are automatically worried about how to make ends meet. “When you’re on a call and you’re hearing the person you’re talking have to stop to catch their breath between sentences, those calls are always hard to call and make. It’s hard to tell a single father with an autistic daughter to isolate, because he can’t.”

Working as a contact tracer has strengthened Leon’s aspiration to work in medicine. “It is a phenomenal clinical experience to have this direct relationship with patients. I call them every day, I deliver medical packages to those in quarantine, I can ask them questions and answer questions. People want to know about our policies, the science behind the testing, possible false-positives.” The experience has also helped him learn some new skills. “With my generation, growing up with the Internet, people have this weird anxiety about picking up the phone. But I staff our COVID hotline sometimes and get occasional calls from far-away places like Nebraska. So I have to respond on my feet and improve my communication with people.”

As of spring 2021, Leon has finally started his research job in the cancer immunology lab, but he still helps out with the contact tracing team. As a part of his work, he created a mastersheet, which contains all the positive cases and close contact they are tracing and their important notes, and helps MIT with their mandatory reporting to the state government. “Figuring out what tools work best for us has been mission critical, and I’m continuing to work on it, because when you develop last minute software solutions during a pandemic, it’s never perfect.”

Moving forward

The pandemic has taught many of us different lessons which we are carrying forward with us, whether it is about our communities or ourselves.

Sheena reflects on the importance of taking care of our community. “I think we need to look out for the people who don’t have the same supports and coping skills that we have and do our best to support them. People need to be reminded to take care of each other.”

Andrew hopes that people will come back to the lessons they were taught at school. “Don’t forget the message of service that we’re given on our way out at TAS. Enduring the draw of money and other opportunity is hard, but there’s always a need in the world for service. People who don’t have a voice will always be treated as lesser, so people who do have a voice should keep advocating for them.”

Jerry has a new perspective on his identity and roots. “As TAS alumni, a lot of us think of ourselves as global citizens, and we don’t really get attached to a certain place. I’ve had to deal with this struggle like many of my classmates, between coming home to Taiwan where it’s safe or staying in Berkeley. What I’ve learned is that you do have to adopt a community to invest in and care about in order to be motivated to do this type of work. I can only do the work I’m doing in relation to COVID if I care deeply about Berkeley, and I didn’t expect myself to care that much until I started doing this.”

As important as his work has been, Leon knows its limitations. “People have a false sense of security from being in their quarantine bubble or being regularly tested, but you’ll continue to test negative until you don’t. Testing doesn’t prevent transmission. We don’t even know if the vaccine does that. This has gone on for a long time, and people aren’t necessarily as vigilant as they were. The sooner we all work together, the sooner we can leave this behind.”