SAN CARLOS — While the country and world battled the coronavirus it took a few months before the San Carlos Apache Reservation would see its first positive case and months before outbreaks started daily. Everyone took note of frontline workers and heroes in healthcare settings like doctors and nurses, as well as store clerks at grocery stores and big box stores around the world, working through a pandemic and sacrificing their lives.
In our community, there were groups of unsung, unseen heroes that for the large part were under the radar. The drivers of the Department of Health and Human Services’ (DHHS) two transportation programs, the Community Health Representatives (CHR) Program and Non-Emergency Medical Transportation (NEMT) program were on the frontlines in an overshadowed capacity.
During the pandemic, NEMT and CHR transported patients to and from the healthcare corporation in Peridot for appointments, Covid-19 testing as well as transportation to the Alternative Care Site (ACS) at the Apache Gold Casino Hotel. These duties were still in addition to their regular work duties transporting patients to non-Covid-19 appointments.
Regularly, CHR drivers transport patients to their appointments both locally and in the Phoenix and Tucson areas. Another important task they have is transporting cancer patients in a mandatory single transport to ensure the best comfort level. In addition to transporting patients, they also help deliver medication to patients within the community. During the pandemic, they also assisted in checking on the elderly in the community. While patients were quarantined, CHR delivered groceries to those families.
Both programs, NEMT and CHR, operate in the San Carlos/Peridot area and in the Bylas community, meaning off-reservation appointments can be in any of the neighboring communities or further out in the metro areas.
In the beginning, the drivers assumed a certain risk on the job with few safety barriers, not knowing for sure if a patient was Covid-19 positive. As the pandemic progressed, DHHS was able to have plexiglass installed to keep drivers safe while on the job as well as taking other precautionary measures such as donning full personal protection equipment (PPEs) during transportation and appropriately sanitizing the vehicles in between patients.
NEMT drivers were dedicated to driving Covid-19 positive confirmed patients, which led to anxiety and nervousness especially with long distance transportation.
The drivers of both programs also sacrificed family time, having to work with no time off because of the pandemic and amount of cases in the community.
While so many people world-wide fought the pandemic on the frontlines, some of the most critical roles were often overlooked. The drivers from the CHR and NEMT programs were frontline workers, made sacrifices, risked their lives but as with all frontline employees, there was a bigger picture to see. Each driver was part of a puzzle that needed to be finished in order to stop the coronavirus pandemic. They played an important role alongside healthcare workers and because of everyone’s handwork and dedication the San Carlos Apache reservation has no active cases of Covid-19 as of press time.