Salt Lake County employees redeploy to help fight pandemic

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Efren Corado Garcia at the Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 29, 2020. Salt Lake County is able to keep their employees working by using COVID funds and redeploying them into pandemic-related roles.

In normal times, Efren Corado Garcia connects vulnerable populations to the joys of art and theater in his job as Salt Lake County’s Arts for All coordinator. Once the pandemic struck and forced the county’s many public venues to close, his role shifted.

But he’s still providing care to those in need.

“I was given the option of either going on unemployment or to be redeployed with the health department,” Corado Garcia said. “I was in a position where I was home alone, so I figured if anything happened I could quarantine without any concern of exposing anybody else, and I decided to join in with the effort.”

He is one of 240 Salt Lake County employees that have redeployed from various non-health department divisions to help battle the spread of COVID-19. Throughout the county, workers from parks and recreation, libraries, theaters and courts have rallied to deliver supplies, communicate safety messages, help businesses reopen and coordinate the government’s pandemic response.

Within the Salt Lake County Health Department, too, hundreds of workers have been reassigned to help with contact tracing and other roles to help curb the contagion.

“It has truly been about 90% of our 400 employees that have been redeployed to help with COVID,” said Dorothy Adams, the health department deputy director, adding the county is getting “buried” in case management. “It’s hard work. It’s emotional work. You’re dealing with people who are sick.”

All said, the county reports, around 500 employees have refocused their work on pandemic prevention roles.

Salt Lake County has spent $9.5 million on payroll and benefits for workers substantially dedicated to the COVID-19 response, including $4.7 million for employees redeployed from other divisions outside the health department, according to county information. The county expects all those costs to be covered by federal funds from the CARES Act.

Beyond the obvious public health benefits, Mayor Jenny Wilson said that shifting these workers to the pandemic front serves two other purposes — preventing layoffs and bolstering the county budget during the closures, cancellations and economic turmoil wrought by the pandemic.

“It ends up being a win-win all around,” Wilson said. “Those people were already on the payroll. We had already done all the paperwork. All they had to do is ... show up Monday morning, whereas if we had to recruit for those [positions] it would have had massive operational impact.”

While the number of county workers helping with the pandemic has ramped down in the last month as the economy reopened, Adams said it’s possible the health department will need to draw on more workers from other departments again, especially as Utah’s infection rate continues to surge.

“We will be ready to do that, absolutely, if we have to,” Adams said, adding, “It’s been pretty amazing to watch people jump in and get involved. Salt Lake County has a great workforce. We’ve had a lot of great work done on behalf of our community.”

Support system

Corado Garcia’s job title for the foreseeable future is “quarantine and isolation coordinator.”

Much of the county’s currently redeployed workforce continues to help with quarantine and isolation facilities, where vulnerable populations who are sick with COVID-19 or have potentially been exposed to the disease stay until they recover to help prevent spreading the virus. These people typically cannot isolate at home because they live in group housing, treatment centers or with multiple families.

“So they go into this isolation phase,” Corado Garcia said. “We’re essentially there as a support system.”

The county is not disclosing the locations of quarantine and isolation facilities to protect residents’ privacy, but the health department reports they have housed 602 people so far.

Corado Garcia helps organize meals, makes sure residents have basic needs met and tries to ease their anxieties.

“They just need a way of interaction, they feel stressed,” he said. “Our job as coordinators is to ensure they feel as comfortable as possible.”

While his background isn’t in public health — he’s a retired dancer with the Repertory Dance Theatre — Corado Garcia does bring professional strengths to his new role, particularly in aiding people in need.

He called his redeployment an “incredible opportunity.”

“As a dancer and teacher throughout the state of Utah doing a lot of community outreach ... I thought I understood how to tap and serve vulnerable populations,” Corado Garcia said. “But working in this facility really gives me a new depth of understanding of what it is to serve the larger community and understand the different spectrums of how people experience life in Salt Lake City.”

William Peterson, too, is finding ways to use his skills during the pandemic. Normally an on-call technical director for the Eccles Theater and the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, he quickly saw his work evaporate as the pandemic spread.

“I realized in April and May there would be no shows. I didn’t anticipate June and July and August and September canceling,” he said. “There were about two or three weeks of uncertainty ... then I got an email from the supervisor of [Salt Lake County] Arts and Culture saying they needed more staff to help the health department.”

Peterson now assists with scheduling and staffing at the isolation and quarantine facilities, sometimes tapping other departments when there are worker shortages.

“I found my job as technical director was kind of similar. You’re still managing schedules and a building facility with people inside who need your help to make sure it runs smoothly,” he said. “Now it’s pandemic protocols instead of showtime protocols.”

Finding roles for temporary and seasonal workers like Peterson has been valuable to the Arts and Culture Division, said communications manager Cami Munk, who praised the county’s redeployment effort.

“Some have been here for years, it’s the mad hours that they work ... our full-time staff can’t do it all,” she said. “You don’t want to lose anybody because there’s no work.”

Bess Thompson, facility manager for Fairmont Aquatic Center, is juggling her normal job responsibilities while helping out with the pandemic response. When the swimming pool temporarily shut down in mid-March, she was quick to redeploy to the health department.

“It’s my nature, I like to help,” Thompson said. “It was a way to continue to give back to the community and be part of a solution, versus just sitting on the sidelines, expecting other people to do something.”

Now the pool is reopened, with the summer season in full swing, Thompson splits her duties between Fairmont and isolation facilities.

While working with infected populations could raise alarm about these redeployed workers becoming sick themselves, all the employees interviewed for this story said the county was making their safety a priority.

“I feel safer here than I do at the grocery store,” Thompson said. “I don’t know how we could be any safer unless we were wearing a bubble.”

For many of these workers, it’s the people outside of pandemic response facilities — shunning face masks, questioning science and ignoring social distancing — that cause greater alarm.

“It’s not about what discomfort or inconveniences you have in your life, it’s really about the larger community,” Corado Garcia said. “That has a lot more human responsibility behind it ... to me, this [work] is a constant reminder of that.”