As the coronavirus pandemic slammed the country and Maryland, creating a tornado of health concerns, economic challenges and day-to day-struggles, Howard County did not escape the turmoil. Many people in the county stepped up to help mitigate the impact of the pandemic — some on the traditional front line of community service and others pitching in behind the front line. Here are stories of some of those who helped.
Caring for the community
Good communication, adequate preparation and community support have been the keys to helping Howard County Hospital successfully deal with COVID-19. And Bob Linton, the hospital’s emergency department director, has been leading the charge.
The Glenelg resident, known for his quiet demeanor, has led by example, overseeing initiatives that helped improve the lines of communication at the hospital while making sure that the care of his staff is at the forefront.
Linton’s leadership during the pandemic has reinforced the hospital’s confidence in him, according to other hospital officials.
“I respect him and have a great working relationship with him,” said Mohammed Ahmed, the hospital’s chief medical officer and vice president of medical affairs. “He seeks out more information and ways he can be better. He’s a very forward-thinking person.”
Linton oversees 40 physicians and physician’s assistants in a staff of 160.
“I work with an incredible team of talented clinicians who are doing great work at keeping our community safe and healthy during this COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.
As of June 4, there were 2,001 cases of COVID-19 in Howard County, with the largest number occurring in May, according to the Howard County Health Department.
Although the hospital does not release statistics breaking down the rate of infections among its patients, it is the only hospital in the county.
“Because we are the only hospital in the county, our emergency department is our safety net,” Linton said. “It’s here most of the patients get their care. It is their only touch point in the hospital.”
Linton said that increasing communications has improved the way his department interacts with other departments in the hospital throughout the pandemic.
Under Linton’s watch, an Incident Command Team was established. The command structure helped streamline intake and treatment processes throughout the hospital.
“We have so many different areas that we are able to coordinate,” Linton explained. “Patients get exactly what they need [in regard] to a specific problem and degree of illness.”
Linton also said a chatline was established for physicians and physician’s assistants to be able to talk to one another and easily exchange suggestions.
While patients are the first priority, Linton and other leaders at the hospital made sure that the staff practiced self-care.
They made resources available, including stress management programs, virtual mindfulness and meditation sessions and support groups. In addition, staff members have access to clinical support for individual mental health needs as well as spiritual care.
“One of the ideas was that they have to take care of themselves — making sure we are getting enough rest and dealing with stress,” Linton said. “This is a marathon.”
Preparedness has also been important during the hospital’s response to the virus, according to Linton.
The hospital routinely conducts emergency preparedness drills to help the staff understand how to deal with various infectious-disease outbreaks so they were ready well before the first coronavirus case was reported in Howard County.
“How well we work as a team is the way the we are able to deal with patients dealing with COVID-19 and potential COVID-19,”Linton said.
He said his immediate leadership team of Sandee Gelven, senior director, emergency services and observation; Patricia Pugh, vice chair for emergency medicine; and Stacie Walker, emergency department nurse manager, has been invaluable to him.
“We meet on a regular basis to manage this large department’s requests to make sure all of us are working in sync,” he said.
Linton and Ahmed said the pandemic meant digesting a large and steady diet of new information being released about the virus.
“One of the challenges of COVID-19 was that we all had to shift leadership style. We had to made decisions incredibly fast,” Ahmed said.
He said Linton excelled during this period because he was “agile” during what was a “new situation for all people.”
As the pandemic continues, Linton said, he is “proud to see how people are stepping up to the challenge.”
And many of those stepping up to help are outside the hospital; many in the community showed support, including working with the Howard County Hospital Foundation to donate food to the hospital staff.
“It makes me feel proud to work in a hospital that is supported so well by the community,” Linton said. “It also makes me feel humble.”
In return, he reminds the community to support local restaurants and businesses.
“Businesses are really hurting,” Linton said. “Anything we can do to support our businesses and restaurants will go a long way. The support has been overwhelming, and we really appreciate it. It fuels our workers and makes us want to work that much harder.”
Caring for the children
When she started hearing about the coronavirus pandemic spreading in the United States, Joan Johnson, who works with Howard County’s Office of Children and Family, immediately asked herself, “What about child care?”
Looking at the trajectory of 2020 as a whole, she says, “Needless to say, things have taken a different twist with COVID-19,” Johnson said.
Johnson and her team worked with child care providers in the county as they tried to figure out how to continue to serve families while adhering to the early state-mandated stay-at-home orders and social-distancing guidelines in essential businesses.
The county’s children and family team needed to find ways to link essential workers with child care providers during the crisis.
That meant first helping parents find providers that were COVID-19 compliant. Child care providers that meet state regulations are considered Emergency Personnel Child Care Centers. Those centers have to follow a wide range of capacity and hygiene guidelines.
Johnson’s team established a database that allowed parents to find openings in approved centers. Meanwhile, they also helped the centers comply with the state’s new and developing regulations.
They set up weekly video chats and organized support groups for the child care providers to answer their compliance questions, coordinate requests to find scarce cleaning supplies and provide other help. The weekly sessions attract anywhere between 15 and 25 people.
With providers joining the chats with plenty of questions, much of each session is spent answering them, according to Johnson.
“The number [of state-approved child care centers] is increasing, which is good because more families need child care” as more people return to work, Johnson said.
By late May, there were 225 state-approved centers in the county.
Rhonda Watson, owner of the Columbia-based child care center Creative Little Minds, said Johnson has been a godsend.
“It’s really been great,” said Watson, who has been in business since 2007. “I have only had a positive experience working with them. It eliminated a lot of stress.”
Watson said that it felt like there were new rules and changes every hour in the beginning as the centers were getting established. But Johnson and her team helped her considerably.
“Joan has been around forever. She’s a guru for everything,” said Watson, who is also the president of the Howard County Family Childcare Association, which has 165 members. “That whole office, they really are passionate people. They really care about children.”
Johnson attributes a lot of her success to Sharon Afework, regional manager for the Howard County Office of Childcare.
“She has been keeping me updated and providing me with facts and forms,” Johnson said. “We’re in contact just about every day. I want to make sure that I am giving the proper information to child care providers for this.”
Johnson said one of the biggest challenges has been the constantly changing information.
“It’s confusing for me and the providers,” she said in reference to capacity requirements and cleaning protocol. “We’ve never had a situation like this before. We’re all floating down the river together.”
Johnson and her team compiled a list with answers to frequently asked questions from parents and child care providers and posted it on the county’s website.
Johnson has 35 years of experience running child care centers, so she said she understands what providers were going through as new regulations were put into place.
“I remember not being able to get answers to questions and being frustrated,” she said. “It gives me great pleasure to be able to search for and provide answers for the child care providers.”
Watson said she and the association’s members have been impressed with how proactive Johnson and her office have been during the pandemic.
“They are constantly working with us to see what we need,” she said. “They are always calling us. We have someone out there helping us. They need to get their respect.”
As the pandemic continues, Johnson advises interested child care providers to apply to become certified as an Emergency Personnel Child Care Center to better support health care workers, first responders and other essential workers.
“Let’s support our emergency personnel and make sure that our children have a safe place to be. Neighbors and friends are wonderful. But having a person who has had a criminal-background check and training is the safest place to be.”
Bringing events home to you
Amanda Hof, executive director of Visit Howard County, started following news about the coronavirus back in February, before many Americans had even heard of it.
“We are in contact with a lot of national and international tourism organizations,” she said. “While the crisis was based in China at that time, they were seeing a decline in travel from China. That is a huge market. We started seeing preventative messages. That got my attention.”
By mid-February, Hof, 49, and her staff reached out to the Howard County Chamber of Commerce and “joined forces.” A business impact survey was conducted to begin tracking cancellations, supply chain problems and other issues.
By March 11 when mass business closures were announced, Hof and her team were prepared with a plan to assist businesses in Howard County.
They changed their marketing messages and switched the organization’s events calendar to focus on outdoor entertainment and virtual events. Since March, Hof’s group has listed more than 400 virtual events — 237 alone in June and July — with a goal to keep organizers “engaged” and to “boost morale” for residents, Hof said.
“Our job is to get consumers spending,” said Hof, who has been with the organization since 2006 and has led it for the past two years. “We knew it wasn’t possible with businesses closed. We wanted to keep business engaged with consumers.”
One of the first events Visit Howard County worked on during the pandemic was EC Silly Fest, originally imagined as a variety of comedians performing at local bars. Instead, comedians performed virtually from their homes. Hof worked with organizers to help promote the festival.
Michael Quindlen, co-organizer of EC Silly Fest, has worked with Hof on about 20 events and marketing campaigns over the years.
“As far as a person who is thoughtful and understanding during this current climate, I think she is magnificent in that respect,” Quindlen said.
Hof teamed with the Howard County Economic Development Authority, the Howard County Chamber of Commerce and Howard County Executive Calvin Ball as she guided the changes for the county’s tourism efforts.
“It’s great just seeing everyone coming together,” she said.
Hof said she’s been impressed with the resiliency of the greater community and “the creative ways that businesses are staying engaged.”
For instance, she lauded how Terrapin Adventures at Historic Savage Mill posted instructional videos showing customers how to create an indoor zip line and how to make ice cream in a bag.
“Obviously, right now is a difficult time. I wake up every day, and it makes me feel very fulfilled. It’s what I do. I don’t think much about it. I know people need me. And I have work to do to help the community,” Hof said.
Jennifer and Kenny Qiu
Good food for hospital, first responders
The first time Jennifer Qiu prepared and delivered free lunch to workers at Howard County General Hospital during the early months of the pandemic, she might have overdone it.
Qiu delivered so much food that the nurses needed four wheelchairs to cart it into the emergency room. There were savory shrimp tempura rolls, California rolls (crab, avocado and cucumber), fried rice and miso soup — 70 cooked meals in all — from Qiu’s restaurant, Sushi Q, in Elkridge. Certainly, the bounty was cause for the weary staff to remove their masks and chow down.
“They [nurses] were speechless,” Qiu said of that donation in late March. “They were so happy that someone was looking out for them. I told them, ‘I couldn’t be like you guys; I’m not strong enough to face all that you’re seeing.’ We just wanted to do something to give back.”
It’s an effort she and her husband, Kenny Qiu, repeated again and again for hospital staff and first responders in Howard, Carroll and Anne Arundel counties where four of their five Sushi Q restaurants do business (the other Howard locale is in Jessup). Besides Howard hospital employees, they fed members of the county police and fire departments in Ellicott City and Elkridge, respectively.
“It’s not difficult. With enough time and employees, I could have done this every day,” said Qiu, 33, of Ellicott City. “We’ve relied on the community for the past eight years, and we’re proud of the love they’ve given us.”
She dared not wait until after the pandemic to thank front-line workers.
“The time to support them is when we’re in deep trouble, not later when business is better. You can’t push this off until tomorrow,” she said.
Qiu has “an amazing sense of community-building,” said Liz Walsh, a Howard County councilwoman familiar with her efforts. “To have someone so steadfast and caring step up so quickly in such horrible times was so reassuring and comforting.”
To Qiu, her role in the crisis was simple.
“Our job is to make sure these people never go hungry,” said Qiu, who is Korean. Her husband, a celebrated chef, is Chinese. “When our 6-year-old, Aiden, helped load food into the car, he said, ‘Mommy, why are we doing this?’ “I said, ‘Many doctors and nurses are fighting for coronavirus patients, and Mommy and Daddy want to make sure their stomachs are full because they never have time to eat.’
“Our kids need to know life is not about making a lot of money; they need to know how to love where they live. And the only way to teach them is to show them.”
Helping seniors with Grab ‘n Go meals
Senior citizens pulled into the bustling parking lot at the Ellicott City 50+ Center on Thursdays this spring to get boxes of frozen food and a warm smile. Then the Howard County seniors headed home, their supper needs met for another week.
In each cardboard box were seven nutritious meals such as meat loaf, carrots and potatoes or baked chicken, peas and pasta. Think: 1960s TV dinner, with a more nutritious oomph. Except this is 2020, there’s a pandemic and some older residents were scared to shop for groceries.
During the pandemic, a federally funded mobile food program dubbed Grab ‘n Go helped feed at-risk older adults in the county.
Each Thursday Jenna Crawley, head of Howard’s Office of Aging and Independence, and her staff of 10 provided microwave-ready meal kits to pre-screened residents at the senior center. A handful of less mobile people received meals delivered by volunteers.
The food, prepared by Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland, included a protein, starch, vegetable and fruit, plus bread, margarine, juice and milk.
“People are grateful for the assistance,” Crawley, 45, of Ellicott City, said in April. “It almost minimizes them having to go to the grocery store. They are frightened; we all are. But it’s satisfying, knowing that we’re getting food to those who are the most vulnerable and at risk.”
Moreover, when they arrived to pick up their meal kits, seniors shared other concerns with the staff, said Courtney Barkley, the county’s health promotion and nutrition division manager.
“One lady said she needed food for her cat, so we’ll help provide that,” Barkley said. “It’s very fulfilling to see their faces light up.”
Each seven-meal kit cost $47. Donations from recipients were welcome but not required.
Crawley’s crew dished out 230 meals the first week and more than 260 the next. She acknowledged the warp speed in which the program was assembled. “We build the plane as we fly it,” she said and added that “unprecedented times” demanded it.
Before the outbreak, her office offered a daily hot lunch for residents 60 and over at the county’s six 50+ senior centers.
The coronavirus scuttled that, but the Grab ‘n Go took its place with the same clientele. Meanwhile, a phone bank of eight staffers fielded questions on the program’s hotline and helped desperate seniors navigate the system of getting help.
“It was all hands on deck to make this happen,” Barkley said.
Crawley said their work evolved as the pandemic has lasted months. And the need arose to offer the elderly a constancy as well as a chicken dinner, she said:
“We realize the importance of our role in assuring older adults, and the disabled, that their basic needs are being met.”