Essential: Frontline stories from grocers, nurses, cleaners, truckers in Reno

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A critical care technician looks at the polished nails of a patient in the intensive care unit and imagines the woman had no idea it was likely her last manicure. 

A 21-year-old house cleaner wonders when he’ll get to see his mom, a cancer survivor, again. 

A grocer thinks, “Why the hell am I picking out 15 flavors of cat food for this order?”

While many Nevadans are laid off, furloughed or working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands are continuing work as their line of business has been deemed “essential.” 

They are working in the hospitals, construction zones, grocery stores and kitchens, on farms and on streets.

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They cannot work from home. They cannot do their jobs without the possibility of coming into contact with the novel coronavirus. They are officially “essential,” and these are their stories of what’s happening while the rest of the world stays home. 

Inside the ICU

Quincie Shaw’s hands are raw from washing them so often. 

She’s tired. She works the night shift as a critical care technician in the intensive care unit at a local hospital. She spends her nights reading vitals and bathing people who are in critical condition. 

ICU work is not for the faint of heart. 

“When I look at patients when we’re giving them a bath, I look at their nails, and they look great, like they were just done, and I think to myself, while they were getting their nails done did they know that might have been their last time getting their nails done?” she said. “I look at the roots of their hair, and I wonder were they going to get their hair dyed next week?” 

Shaw sleeps during the day on the weekends, but come Monday she has to home school her children.

Usually she’d go to the grocery store after work, but now she’s afraid of the looks she might get in her scrubs, even though she knows they’re clean, a set she changed into before leaving work. 

“Sorry, it’s mac n’ cheese tonight, again,” she laughs.  

Where Shaw works, the unit has been split into the non-COVID section and the COVID section. Shaw works in the COVID section. She wears a full protective suit. A helmet blows air into an enclosed space protected by a face shield. It’s bulky but far more comfortable than a face mask. 

“It’s not as slammed as I think people think it is, but we’re obviously expecting a surge, a surge that we hope doesn’t happen,” she said.

She knows people would stay home if they saw what she sees. The COVID patients, though few right now, are being pumped with oxygen.

While non-COVID patients who are close to death can see visitors, COVID patients cannot. No exceptions.

It’s a measure to ensure the virus doesn’t spread further. Everything, from their gloves to their masks to the slippers over their shoes, is intended to stop the spread. She changes every time she enters and leaves the unit. 

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While cellphone video allows for virtual goodbyes, it’s never the same. The patients are never fully alone, though, Shaw said. 

 “We’re not your family, but we’re here,” she said. 

The grocery grind

It’s a lot of pressure to buy someone else’s hair dye. Make sure it’s the right number of the right color of the right brand.

Angela Simone spends her entire morning shopping for other people’s food, hair dye and other items at Smith’s Food and Drug.

“Don’t be such hoarders,” said Simone, adding that sometimes the store is out of what she wants by the time she gets off her shift. “One person doesn’t need 15 packs of spaghetti noodles.”

Simone’s a Clicklist shopper. Consumers select their items online a few days in advance and Simone hand picks them off the shelf. The service has gained great popularity since people began self-quarantining in Nevada a month ago.

“A lot of things are hard to find, like when someone wants to order 15 different flavors of cat food. I don’t have a cat, I’ve never looked at the cat food,” said Simone. 

Today, she’s probably walked 10 miles shopping for customers. She always keeps two shopping carts’ distance between herself and others.

“One of the orders I did today, this person was obviously getting ready to have some kind of dinner party. And maybe they like olives, but this person wanted three giant jars of olives,” said Simone. “Nobody likes olives that much.”

On the road

A lot of people have no clue where the mushrooms they buy come from, but truck driver Tony Sharron does. 

In the back of Sharron’s 53-foot refrigerated semi-truck are mushroom spores that will make their way to farmers all over the country and world.

Sharron, a trucker based in Reno, drives 300 miles one way from Dayton, Nevada, to Oakland, California, two to five times a week. 

“If I’m not being flipped off at least once a week, then I’m not doing my job right,” he said, noting that people hate driving behind trucks since they’re always a little slow. 

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From the port in Oakland, the spores are shipped to farmers in Chile, Peru, Japan and China. Sharron, who owns three trucks, has two drivers that head back and forth to Canada.

While his drive isn’t too tough, his drivers heading to Canada are finding fewer and fewer rest stops and gas stations with open bathrooms and restaurants.

“Amenities are starting to dry up. Stops where you can take a shower and get a hot meal. The only thing you can go to is a drive-thru, but you can’t fit this truck in a drive-thru,” said Sharron. “A lot of gas stations have pulled their hot food sections, no more taquitos, burritos and hot dogs.”

The demand for mushrooms is dropping among restaurants since many are closed or reducing their services.  At least the grocers are still buying fungi, which keeps the farms going, which keeps Sharron’s business going.

For now, Sharron figures he’s in a good spot. The road is wide open. Traffic is better than ever. 

“In my opinion, the safest place you can be is in your truck,” Sharron said.

Clean up crew

Nick Kinsey-Baker, 21, is used to germs.

“You definitely get to see people in their natural habitat. When we walk into their sanctuary, private space, you get to see people for who they are,” said Kinsey-Baker, who, among other tasks, cleans homes for a home concierge service. “Typically it’s the people that have the cleanest houses that apologize for ‘the mess’ the most.”

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He normally walks into his clients’ homes and asks about their kids and work, makes small talk and catches up, but it’s not been that way lately.

“Social norms are morphing now,” said Kinsey-Baker.

Usually, cleaners clean together, and families stay home during the cleanings. 

Recently, cleaners have been working in different areas of the house, and the families leave. 

“It’s lonely,” said Kinsey-Baker. “We’ve had a few clients suspend services due to concern, or because their kids are studying at home now, but on the other hand we’ve also had others wanting everything disinfected in their houses.”

Little things are different. The cleaners use the residents’ vacuums now rather than carry their own from house to house. They wear masks now too. 

Kinsey-Baker isn’t terribly worried about bringing the virus home. He’s young, low-risk, as are his sister and girlfriend, who are both his coworkers and roommates. 

His job, however, has prevented him from seeing his mom for more than a month now. She survived cervical cancer in 2018, and her health has suffered since. 

They have their ways, though, of keeping in touch. 

“We talk on the phone and sometimes we make the same dinner just at different houses,” said Kinsey-Baker. “The other night we made cheesy potato tacos. It’s a family thing. Grilled steak, Mexican cheese, mashed potatoes and you put it all in a taco shell.”

Local book-ies 

Bread baking books. Cocktail recipe books. Children’s workbooks. And lots of puzzles. 

That’s what people are ordering from Sundance Books and Music, according to Emily Bennett, events coordinator and marketing manager for the local bookstore. 

While the store halted orders at the onset of the community’s quarantine measures, the shop has resumed fulfilling online and phone orders recently. 

“I’ll see some orders and I think, ‘I’d love talking to this person because I love what they’re ordering,’” said Bennett. 

Readers are snagging hot new releases, including: “The Glass Hotel,” by Emily St. John Mandel; the podcast-inspired story collection, The Last Book on the Left: Stories of Murder and Mayhem from History’s Most Notorious Serial Killers; and Samantha Irby’s essay collection entitled, “Wow, No Thank You.” 

They’re also buying Katie DiCamillo’s young adult fiction books, like “The Tale of Despereaux” and “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.”

After singer-songwriter John Prine died earlier this month from COVID-19 related complications, lots of people were buying his albums, Bennett said. 

While the few store employees miss seeing their customers coming into the cozy shop, at least they can play the music a little louder lately. 

“Right now we’re playing the Who,” said Bennett. 

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Pawn shop on the corner

1858. That’s when Landon Mack’s great-aunt opened the family’s first pawn shop in the Bay Area. 

“The estimate nationwide is that roughly between 40 and 60 million people use pawn shops because they can’t get a loan from a bank,” said Landon Mack, owner of Palace Jewelry and Loan in downtown Reno and another shop in Sparks. 

While one might expect people to be hocking wedding rings, classic guitars and antique heirlooms in this stalled economy, Mack said business has come to screeching stop. 

“It’s been absolute crash and burn,” said Mack, who is running loans out of the business’s drive-thru window. “As far as people coming in for loans, there haven’t been many because they’re getting stimulus checks.”

People can only rely on the “money coming out of helicopters” for so long, said Mack, and soon enough people will be bringing him everything from cars to jewelry and sporting equipment. 

“It’s for everything: for rent, food, car payments, car repair, house repair, mortgages, you name it,” said Mack. 

The one trend he has noticed among his five to 10 customers or so each day: the gun owners are coming by to pay back their loans and pick up their firearms. 

3 a.m. Uber driver

Although Michael LaPrairie has seen a 75 percent drop in activity as an Uber and Lyft driver, he’s working harder than he ever has in his three years as a gig driver.

A huge portion of drivers “threw in the towel early,” LaPrairie said, because a lot of drivers are retirees, older and therefore at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus. There are still drivers he knows of, however, who are seniors, cancer patients and HIV-positive. They need the income.

LaPrairie’s found a sweet spot early in the morning from 3 to 10 a.m., ferrying working class people getting off their shifts, or going on. 

“It’s been a lot of nurses, EMTs, warehouse workers, a lot of folks going to Amazon,” said LaPrairie. “A lot of these folks don’t have vehicles. I’m seeing a lot of really young nurses who are still paying off loans, and a lot of young warehouse workers who can’t afford a car yet.” 

He’s dropping off these workers at sites that all have potential to become hot beds for the novel coronavirus, including nursing homes.

The medical providers, “they want to talk about anything else but coronavirus,” LaPrairie said. The warehouse workers enjoy gabbing about anyone that’s sick at the facilities. 

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He tries to clean his car once every hour or so with surface wipes and Tuff Stuff, an upholstery cleaner. Sometimes he’ll crank up the heat with the windows up; he’s not sure it helps, but figures it couldn’t hurt. 

Though he’s removed the water bottles and snacks he once provided, and he’s been out of hand sanitizer for a week now, he keeps sanitation wipes in the backseat. The passengers wipe down any surfaces they touch. 

“Oddly enough, the passengers are cleaning the cars for us,” he said. 

Cancer doesn’t wait

While elective surgeries are paused and doctors provide consultations over the phone, cancer patients are able to continue treatment for the most part in Nevada. 

“If your goal is to treat cancer, it’s really important to have continuous treatment,” said oncology nurse Melissa Wetrosky Pingle, who works in a private oncology practice. 

Being outside the hospital reduces patients’ risk of coming into contact with COVID-19, but precautions are still in order. No company is allowed currently during chemotherapy. 

“I had a gentleman on Monday. It was his first treatment and he was by himself. We spent a little more time with him,” said Pingle. “Once a patient comes to us, though, they already know they have cancer.” 

The harder part for some right now is finding out they have cancer without anyone with them at the hospital since hospitals also aren’t allowing anyone besides patients at the facilities, Pingle said. 

In an effort to make visits to the chemotherapy infusion room less solitary, patients, especially the breast cancer patients, coordinate their chemotherapy infusions together so they can sit, pray, tell jokes and catch up with each other. 

The nurses too try to keep patients spirits’ lifted. 

“You have people that are going to die from their disease. You know it, they know it, but you have to find humor where you can find it,” said Pingle.

And that’s the truth with or without a pandemic outside, she said. 

Warehouse work

Chris Setser isn’t entirely sure why his workplace has been deemed “essential,” but he’s glad it was. 

“I’m not complaining about it because a lot of people don’t have a job right now,” said Setser. 

By 6:15 a.m., he’s on a city bus each morning. The bus is often crowded. 

“I try not to sit next to people, but on a crowded bus what can you do?” he said. 

After seven stops, he arrives at a warehouse in Sparks. Work starts at 7 a.m. 

“We make washer fluid and exhaust fluid,” said Setser, who is paid weekly by a temp agency. “It’s the best job I’ve been at. It’s chill. I think I found my life’s work.”

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Setser stands beside large machines that fill bottles with the fluids.

“You just stand there and make sure the machine is doing what it’s supposed to,” said Setser. 

There’s about 10 people in the warehouse altogether. He doesn’t feel like he’s likely to come into contact with the virus at work, but more likely on the bus. He tries to stay away from people who are coughing, but it’s not always easy. 

Four times in the past month, Setser has taken his wife to the hospital because she’s three months pregnant and has experienced fevers on and off. 

“I keep thinking she has the corona thing,” he said. 

Turns out, they’re just side effects from pregnancy. His wife is worried about income and keeps offering to help by working, but Setser refuses to let her work with the virus at large. 

“Her immune system isn’t  just for one, it’s for two,” he said. 

He’s waiting on his stimulus check, which he’ll use toward rent at Siegel Suites, where he lives with his wife and 2-year-old daughter. When his wife’s check arrives, they might try to buy a used car for $800 or so. 

He can only hope that the world outlook is better by the time his second child is due in October. It’s not cheap taking care of a family, he said. 

“I’m scared the economy isn’t going to bounce back. When the economy opens it’s not really going to open,” said Setser. “The world has shut down. It literally stopped.” 

Jenny Kane covers arts and culture in Northern Nevada, as well as the dynamic relationship between the state and the growing Burning Man community. She also covers the state’s burgeoning cannabis industry (Check out her podcast, the Potcast, on iTunes.) Support her work in Reno by subscribing to RGJ.com right here

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