12 People Who Were True Health Heroes During Covid-19

We don't have enough space to honor all the Covid-19 heroes, but here are 12 people—including healthcare workers, political activists, and grocery store employees—who helped other people during the pandemic with dedication and commitment.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought out the heroes among us. Some we may always have considered as heroes, like Anthony Fauci, MD, long-time chief of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). For others, acclaim as heroes is newer. These are grocery store clerks, gas station attendants, bus drivers, truck drivers, sanitation workers and, of course, doctors, nurses, and paramedics on the front lines day after day. Even those who make an effort to stay at home are heroes in their own way. We can’t even begin to honor all of those who are making a difference right now, but here are some that stand out in the moment.

Chinese students and their supporters hold a memorial for Dr Li Wenliang, who was the whistleblower of the Coronavirus, Covid-19, that originated in Wuhan, China and caused the doctors death in that city, outside the UCLA campus in Westwood, California, on February 15, 2020. - The death toll from the new coronavirus outbreak surpassed 1,600 in China on Sunday, with the first fatality reported outside Asia fuelling global concerns. (Photo by Mark RALSTON / AFP) (Photo by MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images)MARK RALSTON/Getty Images

Li Wenlian, MD: First person to describe Covid-19 in patients

Ophthalmologist Li Wenlian, MD, was the first to notice a mysterious respiratory illness affecting a cluster of seven patients at Wuhan Central Hospital in China. He alerted a group of colleagues on a closed WeChat group, only to be accused by the Chinese government of spreading “false rumors” and detained. He was able to return to work and continued to speak out, and then became infected himself with what is now known as Covid-19. In interviews with The New York Times from his hospital bed, Li said, “If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier I think it would have been a lot better.” Dr. Li started coughing on January 10, he told the Times, and predicted, “It will take me another 15 days or so to recover. I will join medical workers in fighting the epidemic.” He died on February 7, at age 33. Three months later, Covid-19 has infected more than six million people around the globe, with a death tally of almost 370,000 and rising.

headshot of Carly O'ConnorCourtesy Carly O'Connor-Terry

Carly O’Connor-Terry: Created symptom guide for people with autism

When the assistant director of a Pittsburgh advocacy organization became a “probable” case of Covid-19, they couldn’t find any plain language information on the virus. That challenge was just what Carly O’Connor-Terry, 26, was ready for. The University of Pittsburgh medical student understood the need for a different kind of explanation. She has a brother with autism who doesn’t communicate with words.

“[The assistant director] was the first one to teach me about the gaps in accessibility with health information,” says O’Connor-Terry. “For example, they mentioned that the concept of ‘shortness of breath‘ can be hard to describe.”

O’Connor-Terry recruited a team of people who spent five weeks developing an accessible guide for people with autism and intellectual disabilities. It’s available in English, Spanish, and French, with plans for future Arabic and Nepali editions. All explanations are accompanied by illustrations. Instead of “shortness of breath,” the guide lists seven specific signs, like “hard to finish a sentence.” “A lot of things are changing,” the guide concludes. “It’s normal to feel sad, worried, or lonely.”

virginia gray music therapistCourtesy Houston Methodist Hospital

Virginia Gray: Recorded mom’s heartbeat for a newborn

Finally, Houston Methodist Hospital had enough personal protective equipment to cover non-essential staff. That’s when music therapist Virginia Gray donned her “haz mat suit,” picked up her “special” stethoscope (it has recording capabilities) and entered the ICU room of Covid-19 patient Emelia Herrera, 30. Herrera had arrived at the hospital on April 8, 35 weeks pregnant and gravely ill. Doctors delivered baby Selina by emergency cesarean section and put Emelia in isolation.

“She showed up at the hospital not being able to breathe, then woke up two and a half weeks later with no baby bump,” says Gray. She had no memory of the preceding weeks. With Herrera’s permission, Gray placed the stethoscope on the new mom’s chest and recorded her heartbeat for her baby. Gray added a lullaby to the mix, singing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star herself because Herrera’s voice was damaged from intubation. Herrera chimed in, “I love you” at the beginning. The heartbeat and lullaby rested in Selina’s crib. “She would go to sleep just lying in her crib listening to Mom’s heartbeat,” the grandparents reported. Mom and daughter met for the first time a day before Mother’s Day and a day after Selina’s turned one month old.

LA CAN skid row power DIY hand washing stationCourtesy Pete White (LA CAN)
Art by Marie Quinn & Sandra Rivera

Pete White: Created handwashing stations for homeless

They are “living and breathing objects,” says Pete White, executive director of Los Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN). These objects are DIY hand washing stations, now spaced throughout LA’s Skid Row, which, says White, is home to 13,000 to 15,000 people. That means it’s a perfect breeding ground for the coronavirus, which spreads quickly in crowded conditions. The stations are the product of an initiative called Skid Row Power which itself is a grassroots network including LACAN and Skid Row community members as well as University of Southern California faculty and students, to meet a critical need in the battle against Covid-19. “While handwashing may sound simple, there are complications,” says USC communication professor Francois Bar, PhD. “Where do you get clean water? What do you do with the dirty water? How often do you refill? How do you find soap?” The stations cost only about $50-$70 to make and use different designs. One has a faucet made from a repurposed plastic dragon. Local residents maintain the stations and provide education about Covid-19. The instructions are available online. Each station is also a work of art, hand-painted by local artists. “Art has no address,” says White. Neither does Covid-19.

raquel mcgee BWOPCourtesy Raquel McGee

Raquel McGee: Founded political advocacy group for black community

In late February, a dozen black women in Chicago gathered to form a political advocacy group for black people in Chicago and Illinois. When Covid-19 struck, Black Women Organizing for Power (BWOP Chicago) knew what it had to do.

“It was clear to us that we would need to form a response to how this crisis was having a disproportionate impact on black communities and specifically ADOS (American Descendants of Slavery),” says BWOP founder Raquel McGee, 29, a high-school English teacher. The black community represents almost half of all Covid-19 deaths in the city, despite representing only 30% of the city’s population. By one account, African Americans are 2.7 times more likely to be hospitalized with Covid-19 than non-Hispanic white people. (Read about other high-risk groups.)

To date, group members have never met in person because of quarantine guidelines, but they’re moving. According to NBC Bay Area, they have requested the city of Chicago earmark $6 million public-health dollars to black communities affected by the virus, set up “quarantine allowance” or hazard pay for black citizens, create digital resources and a hotline, as well as a Black Community Disaster Relief Plan.

llamas and coronavirus pandemicKENZO TRIBOUILLARD/Getty Images
Dorien De Vlieger, doctoral researcher, examines laboratory test tube that she use for her research on llama antibodies, hoping to find a treatment against COVID-19.

Dorien De Vlieger: Developed potential treatment using llama antibodies

Not only do llamas have enviable eyelashes, they also produce antibodies only 25% the size of human ones. These “nanobodies” are better able to burrow into our cells’ nooks and crannies that larger human antibodies can’t reach, making them a potential tool for treating diseases. Scientists, led by Daniel Wrapp and Dorien De Vlieger, published a paper in the journal Cell that looked at antibodies produced by a four-year-old Belgian llama named Winter. The llama was vaccinated with coronavirus spike proteins from MERS and SARS, and the antibodies she produced also recognized Covid-19. “This is one of the first antibodies known to neutralize [the Covid-19 virus],” Jason McLellan, PhD, co-senior author of the paper and associate professor of molecular biosciences at the University of Texas at Austin, said in a statement. The researchers are now testing the antibodies on hamsters. Non-human primates would be next and, if all goes well, an approved therapy could be available in about a year, co-author Daniel Wrapp told Vermont Public Radio.

Courtesy Jim Withers

Jim Withers, MD: Founded program that supports people in homeless camps

Before the pandemic, Jim Withers, MD, and his team at Pittsburgh Mercy’s Operation Safety Net (OSN), a medical and social-services outreach program for homeless people, shuttled folks to doctors’ appointments, offered hugs and more. Now, as the only organization allowed into homeless camps, they’ve shifted to coronavirus testing. Armed with coronavirus tests from the University of Pittsburgh, teams of two go to encampments, find symptomatic individuals and, with their consent, perform the test. “It really takes two people to gown up under a bridge and hold a specimen and all of that,” says Dr. Withers, who founded the program 30 years ago. A yellow duffel bag holds masks, gowns, face shields, gloves, cooler (“You have to put all the Covid tests on ice,” says Dr. Withers), as well as paperwork and trash bags. So far, there have been no positive cases of Covid-19 on the streets out of a dozen or so tested. OSN also hands out masks so people can go to a store. “I think there’s a community spirit out there,” he adds. “We have an extensive texting network where certain representatives in the street that we know will look out for other people.”

albertson's grocery store devlieryCourtesy Sumaiya Ahmed Sheikh

Sumaiya Ahmed Sheikh: Launched community grocery delivery service

We all still have to eat during a pandemic, but how do you get needed groceries if you’re elderly or have a higher risk for Covid-19? What if you have Covid-19 or were exposed? And what if you’re home bound and just can’t get out. Sumaiya Ahmed Sheikh of West Bloomfield, Michigan, co founded #MichiganMuslims Community Grocery Service to fill this gap for people of all faiths and backgrounds in the greater Detroit area. A single Facebook post in late March resulted in more than 300 volunteers within a week and a half. Like the people they serve, volunteers are from all walks of life and all faiths. People in need of groceries or a meal pick-up can call the hotline at (734) 210-0316. They’re assigned a volunteer who takes the order and delivers it to their doorstep. (You can volunteer here.) The client can pay online or leave cash at the doorstep. There’s also a fund for those who can’t pay. The delivery, of course, is on the house. “You have to serve those that need the help,” Sheikh told WDET Detroit.

Belinda ArmsCourtesy Belinda Arms

Belinda Arms: Sewed masks and counseled meat plant workers

As chief union steward of United Food and Commercial Workers International Union at the Tyson Foods plant in Corydon, Indiana, part of Belinda Arms’ responsibilities are to take care of her team members. Now that means Covid-19-related issues. “We have a lot of people at our plant with underlying health conditions,” says Arms, 51. “Even though we’re doing our best, people are still concerned. They talk to me about their and feelings.” Nowadays, much of that talking takes place through at a distance, or through plexiglass barriers between workstations and, of course, masks. And after 10 or more hours a day working and counseling, Arms returns home and spends two to three hours making more masks on her Brother sewing machine, “just trying to keep up a supply.” These go to co-workers and community members. Two days ago she found gold in the form of elastic. “I bought ladies white tights and cut those into ringlets and used them as the elastic,” says Arms, who has known several people infected with Covid-19. “We all have to keep doing the best we can.”

kyong barryCourtesy Kyong Barry

Kyong Barry: Sanitized grocery stores and carts

Nowadays, Kyong Barry’s job working the front end of Albertson’s Grocery in Algona, Washington, near Seattle, involves not just hiring and training new employees and helping customers through the self check-out, it’s sanitizing. Depending on the day, she can spend 20% to 100% of her time cleaning and, if she’s not cleaning, she’s supervising others doing this job. That means the self-checkout area, the bathrooms, the registers and the knobs. “We make sure all the knobs on every door every customer and employee touches is sanitized,” says Barry, 57, has worked at the store for 18 year and is an active member of UFCW 21. “I try to do it every half hour, at the most every hour.” And then there are the carts. The store has 150 carts and about 2,000 customers a day. Each cart is sanitized after each use. “We have to be really vigilant making sure we’re sanitizing because, if we don’t, we’re endangering our community, our families, our customers, our coworkers and ourselves,” says Barry. “People [working at the store] are scared. We don’t dwell on it. We just do our job the best that we can.”

Marina Vaysberg, pharmacistCourtesy Marina Vaysberg

Marina Vaysberg: Pharmacist delivered medication, groceries, and more

Pharmacist Marina Vaysberg has always been close to her customers at the Duane Reade store in New York City where she has worked for a decade. Many are seniors and most she knows by first name. When Covid-19 hit, that bond became stronger. “I started making follow-up calls to high-risk patients to make sure they were OK and had everything they needed,” says Vaysberg, who holds a Pharm.D. She and her team began delivering not just medications but other necessities like milk, eggs, adult diapers and, for one woman who had just been diagnosed with Covid-19, flour so she could bake. (That person, says Vaysberg, “is doing fine. I spoke to her yesterday.”) And the customers called her with questions. “Thank God you’re there,” they sighed when she answered the phone. Then Vaysberg herself fell ill with the novel coronavirus and the concern became mutual. Fortunately, Vaysberg’s symptoms were mild; they lasted only two or three days. She quarantined at home for two weeks, itching all the while to return to work. “I didn’t want patients worrying about me,” Vaysberg says. She’s been back at work since early April, tending to her customers and her community. “Everyone’s in this together,” she says.

Senators listen to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases speak remotely during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on May 12, 2020Win McNamee/Getty Images

Anthony Fauci, MD: Championed accurate information about Covid-19

On May 12, Dr. Fauci issued perhaps his strongest statement yet on the Covid-19 challenge. Beamed from his home where he was self-quarantined, he warned the Senate and the nation of “suffering and death that could be avoided” if the country reopens too soon. Dr. Fauci, who was appointed to the NIAID in 1984, has led responses to multiple other infectious outbreaks, including HIV/AIDS, MERS, SARS, Ebola and Zika. As a member of the president’s coronavirus task force, since Covid-19 arrived in the United States, he has conveyed the basic truths about the public health threat facing the world, championed social distancing, reported matter-of-factly on the extent of the outbreak and the hopes for a vaccine (or vaccines). He is, said New York Times columnist David Brooks recently on the PBS NewsHour, “one of the heroes of American government over the past 20 years.”

Sources

Amanda Gardner
Amanda Gardner is a freelance health reporter whose stories have appeared in cnn.com, health.com, cnn.com, WebMD, HealthDay, Self Magazine, the New York Daily News, Teachers & Writers Magazine, the Foreign Service Journal, AmeriQuests (Vanderbilt University) and others. In 2009, she served as writer-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. She is also a community artist and recipient or partner in five National Endowment for the Arts grants.