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Considered key essential workers throughout the pandemic, the following five individuals were profiled for their contributions during 2020: Frankie Carrillo, a butcher at Food 4 Less in El Centro; Marilyn del Bosque Gilbert, Imperial Irrigation District Energy Department manager; family medicine practicitoner and Pioneers Memorial Healthcare District physician, Dr. George Fareed; owner of Rosa’s Plane Food in Calexico, Rosa Maria Barajas; and Imperial County sheriff’s deputy Sgt. Emmet Fried. | FILE PHOTOS

An Essential 5: Workers Rely on Resiliency During Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended countless lives locally and across the globe, and some have found it more challenging than others to adapt to the ever-changing conditions encountered in their personal and professional lives.

The following five profiles are of individuals whose responses to the ongoing pandemic may have largely differed in their places of employment yet highlight a common resiliency that has emerged amid the pandemic.

We offer perspectives from the healthcare field that treated our sick and kept us healthy; the food service industry, which kept us fed; the essential retail/grocery sector that made sure our basics were supplied, like food, toiletries, and cleaning supplies; law enforcement and emergency services, whose members responded to our calls for service and help; and those who worked on our infrastructure, the men and women who made sure the lights were on, the water flowed, and the roads were kept in order.

These are some of their stories.

Frankie Carrillo: Finding Some Peace Amid the Chaos

When grocery stores became something of a flash point early on during the COVID-19 pandemic, Valley resident Frankie Carrillo was there to take notice.

As a butcher at the Food 4 Less in El Centro and onsite steward for the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 135, Carrillo got a firsthand view of some of the good and bad that the industry experienced.

Some of the good, Carrillo said, was the result of the practices the store’s parent company, Kroger Co., implemented at the onset of the pandemic that was aimed at protecting the health and safety of workers and shoppers alike.

“I think they’re doing a pretty good job of taking care of their employees,” Carrillo said. “It creates a peace of mind.”

Additionally, Carrillo concedes that the salary and benefits that UFCW Local 135 was able to negotiate on behalf of the local Food 4 Less employees prior to the virus’ spread helped ease some of the financial concerns that the pandemic has generally elicited in other sectors of the economy.

Frankie Carrillo, a butcher at Food 4 Less in El Centro, runs a piece of meat under a saw on Tuesday, Dec. 29. Carrillo is also onsite steward for the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 135. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO

The pandemic has prompted major and minor changes at the workplace, including enhanced cleaning and sanitizing measures, and the scheduling of employees to be adjusted from a two-week period to a weekly format, Carrillo said.

He has also seen his own work hours increase to the point that his earnings so far have exceeded those of any previous time. That added pay aside, Carrillo said he is grateful above else to remain employed during such trying times.

“Just the fact that we haven’t had to stop working has been enough,” Carrillo said.

In the case of his household, Carrillo said he and his wife have been able to weather any disruptions to their finances by having adopted sound fiscal practices they learned from taking courses at Financial Peace University about five years ago.

Despite a few coworkers having contracted the virus over the past several months, Carrillo said he has luckily been spared so far.  

Even so, employees that have either tested positive or been prompted to quarantine after potential exposure have received two weeks of paid time off, as well as some additional financial assistance from the UFCW Local 135.

“Both the company and union have helped us,” Carrillo said.

As things currently stand, patrons who enter the store without any face covering may be allowed to continue shopping but are advised that a cashier will not ring up their purchases, Carrillo said.

Management has adopted the use of radios to alert one another of customers without face coverings, and at times will use those radios to provide pep talks to help keep spirits up at the workplace, he said.

Carrillo’s own views on the dangers of the coronavirus haven’t changed much, and despite the risk of potential exposure his workplace might place him in, he considers that risk something he willingly signed up for.

Yet, he is supportive of some added compensation, such as hazard pay, being awarded to other essential workers who might not have the enhanced employer- and union-sponsored salary and benefits he and his coworkers have enjoyed.

“I would want it for those who really need it,” Carrillo said.

Marilyn del Bosque Gilbert: Keeping the Lights On

Even before COVID-19 had started making major headlines across the globe, the Imperial Irrigation District had anticipated its potential spread and decided to proactively review its pandemic plan.

The plan identified key business practices and workplace health and safety measures that would help ensure continuity of business operations. Or, put plainly, help the district keep the lights on.

The decision to update its pandemic plan largely stemmed from discussions that the district’s Energy Department officials had in February with state and utility trade association representatives, who advocated for proactive measures in the face of the coronavirus’ potential global spread.

“We started planning for this before,” said Marilyn del Bosque Gilbert, IID Energy Department manager. “That helped us be prepared so when we had to deploy certain action plans, we were ready to go.”

Besides ensuring the continuity of operations, those action plans are credited with helping keep positive COVID-19 cases to a minimum within the Energy Department, as opposed to the higher rates experienced within other district departments, Gilbert said.

“Never did I once feel unsafe at the workplace,” she said.

Marilyn del Bosque Gilbert, Imperial Irrigation District Energy Department manager | COURTESY PHOTO

Gilbert said she is working remotely out of an abundance of caution but is scheduled to be in the office next week.  

“I report to the office and field as needed to help keep the IID operating but also try to minimize exposure,” she said.

Reviewing and updating the pandemic plan also required a relatively large amount of effort. Both salaried and hourly employees worked seven days of the week during the pandemic’s early months as part of the effort.

Once finalized, it was determined which employees would work remotely, which ones would continue to work onsite, and how the workplace and employees’ schedules would be adjusted to promote health and safety.

The Energy Department has a total of 439 employees, with about 370 of them working at the district’s offices and 67 working remotely.

“At any given time, we have staff either on staggered rotation or reporting to the office on various days to minimize the number of staff in the office due to the recent increased cases in the area,” Gilbert said.

For their part, engineers were outfitted with desktop computers to work remotely, while those employees charged with the minute-by-minute monitoring of power generation and flow were required to remain onsite.

Another initiative restricted the past practice of having IID troubleshooters arrive at the scene of an electrical service call together in one vehicle. Today, it is common to see multiple vehicles driven and occupied by a solitary driver at the scene of a service call.

“The rule is to try to keep them as separated as much as possible,” Gilbert said, adding that some fleet vehicles were brought out of “retirement” to assist with the endeavor.

The department’s push to outfit its employees with personal protective equipment also extended beyond the typical hand sanitizer and face coverings and included the procurement of fire-resistant face coverings that meet the department’s standards for its electrical workers, which initially proved challenging to find.

“As soon as the equipment was available, we made sure every single department in my organization had the equipment that they needed,” Gilbert said.

The department’s overall efforts in response to the COVID-19 pandemic appear to be working as intended, keepings workers safe and healthy and preventing any disruptions to business operations.

As such, Gilbert, who has been with district for about two years and was appointed department manager in May, said she is proud of her team’s accomplishments to date. Considering the energy department is a 24-hour operation and requires staff to be scheduled to work around the clock, it has been no small feat. 

The California Public Utilities Commission recently reported on its website that residential electric usage has increased 15 to 20 percent because of residents sheltering at home.

“The power needs to keep flowing,” Gilbert said.

Dr. George Fareed: Experiencing the Highs and Lows of the Pandemic

BRAWLEY — It’s been a remarkable year for Dr. George Fareed, to say the least.

As a lead doctor, hospitalist, and medical director at a number of local healthcare facilities, Fareed has seen just how severe the COVID-19 pandemic has been.

“I never thought I’d be battling this from dawn to dusk,” Fareed said on a recent morning. “It is as if we were in war, really.”

Dr. George Fareed is in full protective gear in the Pioneers Memorial Hospital intensive-care unit as he treats severe COVID-19 patients earlier in 2020. | COURTESY PHOTO

His characterization can hardly be considered an overstatement, considering the Imperial Valley finds itself in the midst of a second surge that has outpaced hospitalization rates that were experienced during the summer.

Last week at Pioneers Memorial Hospital in Brawley, where Fareed serves as a hospitalist, the facility saw its capacity climb to 90 and all 27 of its ventilators were in use, he said on Wednesday, Dec. 30.

“That was the worst it’s been, even when we were at the ‘epicenter’ in California,” he said, referring to the county’s previous notoriety as having one of the state’s highest infection rates during the summer.

As before, Fareed continues to urge residents to employ the precautionary measures that public health officials initially recommended during the onset of the pandemic.

He has also expressed gratitude for the tireless work of frontline healthcare professionals, who are at a greater risk of contracting the coronavirus on account of their work.

“It’s required tremendous adjustments and sacrifices that you never envisioned a year ago,” Fareed said. “And it’s resulted in a lot of healthcare workers getting infected.”

As of Dec. 30, the Imperial County Health Department reported some 1,714 current positive cases out of the 22,128 total positive cases recorded to date.

He remains hopeful that public and professional opinion will turn in favor of the early-intervention treatment methods that he and a group of other physicians nationwide have championed.

As the medical director at Imperial Heights Health and Wellness Centre in Brawley, Fareed has seen the benefits of the use of a hydroxychloroquine cocktail, also known as HCQ, on COVID-positive patients.

Within the nursing home, the use of HCQ is credited with helping save the lives of 95 percent of the dozens of patients to whom it has been administered, Fareed said.

Locally, Fareed is among a small number of doctors who are administering the early-intervention regimen, including Dr. Brian Tyson, of the All Valley Urgent Care Center, where Fareed also works.

Additional evidence of the efficacy of HCQ at treating acute COVID-positive individuals can be found in a newly published article of which Fareed is one of dozens of contributing authors.

The Reviews in Cardiovascular Medicine article, published Dec. 30, advocates for the use of sequenced multi-drug therapy, of which HCQ is one, to reduce the intensity and duration of COVID-19 symptoms and avoid hospitalization and death.

In November, the 76-year-old physician was joined by two colleagues in Washington, D.C., to speak at a U.S. Senate hearing on early intervention convened by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., where they touted the benefits of HCQ.

The experience was a welcome development within a year that was otherwise filled with more unfortunate events.

“That was the highlight of the year for me,” Fareed said. “We got ourselves on the map with that.”

Rosa Maria Barajas: Learning to ‘Live with This Situation’

CALEXICO — Rosa Maria Barajas, co-owner of Rosa’s Plane Food, readily admits she is not sure what the future may bring for her business and the wider community amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

But despite that uncertainty, she is confident that good food, heartfelt customer service, and employee satisfaction will go a long way toward maintaining the viability of the decades-old eatery.

Rosa Maria Barajas dishes up a plate of the food at her popular eatery Rosa’s Plane Food in Calexico in January 2020. | FILE PHOTO

“It’s been an intense experience, but it has shown us how to keep moving forward,” Barajas said in Spanish.

So far, that forward progress has required a strict allegiance to the health and safety precautions she and her coworkers have adopted at the Calexico restaurant, which like all others within the Valley remains solely open for take-out and delivery.

While the traditional Mexican food the restaurant has been serving for the past 36 years has proven popular enough among patrons, just as many are drawn by the genuine affection that Barajas and her staff heap on customers, she said.

In her estimation, that sincerity is what is especially needed during these trying times.

“You have to make the customer feel safe every time they come to pick up food, because many are still scared,” Barajas said. “Making them feel like they matter is something that can make the experience all the more worthwhile.”

Already, she has weathered a drop in sales of about 20 percent, which initially had prompted the layoff of three of her five employees.

The Independent Restaurant Coalition has estimated that one in five jobs lost during the pandemic corresponded with the restaurant and bar industry.

The trade group also reported that the restaurant industry lost about $220 billion in the second quarter of 2020, yet only received about $42 billion, along with the accommodations industry, from the federal Paycheck Protection Program.

More recently, a $23,000 government loan had allowed Barajas to bring staffing levels back to normal. Additionally, the restaurant was able to secure a contract from the county Area Agency on Aging to prepare daily meals for delivery to more than 70 local seniors.

“If it wasn’t for the government’s assistance, we wouldn’t be here today,” Barajas said. “They have done more than we had expected.”

Despite the eatery’s recent windfalls, Barajas said she fears the worse of the pandemic’s effect is yet to come now that winter has arrived.

Those fears appear to have been borne out by a recent surge across the state and locally, where 48 COVID-positive patients occupied all but two of the Valley hospitals’ 50 intensive-care unit beds on Tuesday, Dec. 29, the Imperial County Public Health Department reported.

The troubling trend has not been lost on Barajas, who said hardly a week goes by without hearing about the passing of another longtime friend or acquaintance due to the coronavirus.

“It hurts my soul just thinking of all the people that are no longer here,” she said.

Aside from the uncertainty brought on by COVID-19, Barajas’ advancing age has gotten her thinking increasingly about her retirement and the handing over of the family business to her daughters.

The restaurant has been at its current location at 445 S. Imperial Ave. for more than the past two years and had originally been located adjacent to the Calexico International Airport, where it experienced a level of success that contrasts greatly with its present circumstances.

Those present circumstances are likely to extend far into the next year, Barajas said, although she holds out hope that the extent and scope of the pandemic will not be as severe and that COVID-related deaths decrease dramatically.

“We will have to learn how to live with this situation,” she said.

Sgt. Emmet Fried: Deputies Affected, Courts Adapt Amid the Pandemic

As the president of the Imperial County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, Sgt. Emmet Fried has seen how the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the agency’s membership.

Nowhere has the impact been felt more greatly than for those members assigned to the Sheriff’s Office’s jails, where clusters of positive cases have been reported among both inmates and correctional staff.

Imperial County sheriff’s deputy Sgt. Emmet Fried, who is both the Sheriff’s Office’s Court Services Division supervisor at the Imperial County Courthouse in El Centro and president of the Imperial County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, stands outside the courthouse recently. He has experienced much change in the past nine months because of COVID-19. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO

“We currently have a few (Deputy Sheriffs’ Association) members in quarantine due to positive test results, but they’re doing well and are just counting down the days to come out of quarantine,” Fried stated in a Dec. 23 email.

For his part, Fried is assigned to the county Superior Court, where he serves as the Sheriff’s Office’s Court Services Division supervisor.

Since Dec. 9, the county Superior Court reverted again to mostly hosting court proceedings remotely, greatly limiting community members from appearing at the local courthouses.

Like everyone else in the criminal justice system, court employees have been affected by the pandemic.

“The two biggest challenges we are dealing with at this point are related to staffing issues and the process of conducting court matters remotely,” Fried said. “The reduction in staffing levels due to quarantines alone has actually changed how some calendars are being run.”

Though he is employed by the Sheriff’s Office and not the state’s court system, Fried has had a close-up view of how the courts’ normal operations have had to adjust to help ensure the health and safety of the public and justice system partners.

“When you’re dealing with staffing levels that are already low, losing even more people to quarantines for COVID exposures makes the impact that much more significant,” Fried said.

Nor are such scenarios limited to court employees or deputies assigned to courthouses.

Already this month, one jury trial had to be paused for 14 days after several jurors and alternates were forced to quarantine in response to potential COVID-19 exposure, counsel in the case previously reported.

Fried counts himself as among the fortunate who have not contracted the coronavirus or been prompted to quarantine because of a potential exposure.

“We have had more than a few instances where someone got tested and came back positive, only after learning they had been in contact with someone else who tested positive,” he said. “These people would have never known they had COVID, nor would they have ever gotten tested because they felt fine.”

Currently, only some in-person hearings are being convened on a case-by-case basis when ordered by the judge handling the hearing. Matters related to small claims have been continued, while the Brawley and Winterhaven court remain closed.

Challenges have arisen in regard to handling matters remotely, Fried said. It is not uncommon for technical issues to present themselves when conducting proceedings that have multiple parties that are communicating remotely. Those separate parties typically include judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and defendants, who often are being held in custody.

In the event that one of those parties loses their connection or experiences some type of interference that prevents them from hearing something another party said, then the proceeding comes to a halt until all parties are back up and running properly, Fried said.  

To help combat the potential spread of the coronavirus, precautionary measures such as social distancing, enhanced sanitizing practices and the use of personal protective equipment have been adopted by the local court system.

Across the state, similar measures have been adopted by superior and state appellate courts in accordance with the directives of state Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.

Fried said he views the measures put in place at the courthouse in El Centro as the best of available options, but that the evolving circumstances of the pandemic present continued challenges as well.

“You obviously want to do what is necessary to protect your people, but it’s difficult when you don’t have all the information,” he said. “We really haven’t even scratched the surface in regards to long term effects from contracting COVID.”

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