[Editor’s note: This is the third in a new series of special reports from NC Policy Watch that we’ve entitled “Voices from the pandemic.” In these brief vignettes, our award-winning team of journalists will share snippets from the lives of typical North Carolinians attempting to cope with and respond to the unprecedented global public health crisis.
We welcome your feedback, as well as your help in identifying other individuals whom we might feature in future installments of the series. — Rob Schofield – [email protected] .]
Nikki-Miller Ka loves the grocery store.
Checking out the fresh produce, stocking her pantry for favorite meals, getting inspiration for new dishes, chatting with fellow customers and check-out folks.
But that was before the pandemic.
“Now…it’s a very harrowing experience,” she said.
Bare shelves. Nervous customers. Exhausted employees.
Why aren’t people wearing masks or gloves? Why are they standing so close?
But a few days ago, at a market in her hometown of Winston-Salem, a man in the baking aisle broke through that anxiety. He was standing there, looking perplexed, examining the last two bags of flour in the entire store.
She smiled, breaking the ice.
“I…I’m looking for cake flour?” he said.
There wasn’t any. But there was an easy substitution.
“For every cup of flour you need, take out two tablespoons,” she told him. “And add two tablespoons of corn starch.”
He smiled, thanked her, looked really relieved.
It was a small moment. Just a few weeks ago, she might have forgotten it by the end of the day.
Now, it’s the kind of thing that sticks with her — a reminder of what she loves about food, how it can bring people together even in trying times.
A classically trained French chef, Miller-Ka has spent years building a career that’s all about the table. She’s a popular blogger, food writer and critic. She’s been a private chef, developed recipes for major brands, judged James Beard Foundation contests and been featured in Southern Living and New York Magazine. She leads Triad food tours, sharing her favorite local restaurants and dishes.
But last month, everything changed. Restaurants were shut down for sit-down dining. No more food tours. Sponsored content on her blog dried up. Her pay was cut at Triad City Beat, where she’s food editor. She still writes columns for GoTriad and the News & Record in Greensboro, but has grown nervous about take-out safety when doing reviews.
Her partner Bill, a kitchen manager, is also out of work right now.
“We’re homebodies anyway,” Miller-Ka said. “But I always have to be doing something.”
Seeing people struggle with cooking at home more — some for the first time — she took to her Nik Snacks  blog to share simple shopping lists , meal plans and daily recipes . She leans toward comfort foods, keeping in mind food supply issues many are now experiencing. On social media, she’s shared her personal experience getting SNAP benefits for the first time — and how to maximize them at farmer’s markets with matching programs.
“I felt like this was something I could do, that people really needed,” Miller-Ka said.
Feedback proved her right. Like the man in the baking aisle, there were plenty of people struggling with food know-how. She felt like she’d been training all her life to lend a hand.
She has confidence the food world will rebound — slowly, perhaps, and it may not look exactly the same.
Until then, today’s plan is next week’s meal plan. — Joe Killian
Brenda Jackson and staff
Brenda Jackson and her staff at the Cumberland County Department of Social Services held their breaths and hoped for the best knowing the worst would come.
And what they feared, did come.
Outbreaks of COVID-19 at North Carolina’s nursing homes and other elderly care facilities, claimed the lives of more than 200 of the state’s most vulnerable citizens. Nearly 2,000 residents of such facilities have contracted the contagious and deadly virus, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.
“We knew that it wasn’t if it was going to happen, but when,” said Jackson, the department director. “It’s a vulnerable population. I was surprised it didn’t happen sooner and that it hasn’t been more widespread as in some other areas.”
As the virus began to spread across America in March, the department paid close attention to elderly clients served through its Adult Protection Services division.
APS works to ensure the safety and well-being of elderly clients. It investigates suspected abuse, neglect and exploitation of adults. Part of its duties includes visiting clients’ homes and elderly care facilities when referrals are made or complaints are lodged.
“We’re doing business differently now,” said Crystal Black, the agency’s assistant director of Adult Services. “We have to look at that facility and consider if there is a risk to the [CCDSS] worker, if there is a COVID-19 case there or someone in isolation.”
Jackson said no APS clients have died from COVID-19.
Despite the risks, the state requires APS to make on-site visits to address referrals and complaints. No CCDSS employees have tested positive for COVID-19, Jackson said.
“Knock on wood and bless it,” Jackson said. “We’ve had some folks on self-quarantine because they’ve had some exposure both personally and at work. So far, we’ve been fortunate.”
Before COVID-19, Jackson said, staff members seldom found themselves in harm’s way.
“This is different,” she said. “This is the risk of death. If they go to a facility or go into a home, how are they exposing themselves and how are they exposing their families? That’s a very different type of social work practice that we really haven’t had to face.”
Black said staff members have received Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and training to protect themselves against the virus.
“We’re suiting up our workers to go in and do investigations and they’re being very efficient about spending time in the facility and who they talk to and what they do,” Black said. “It’s become a bit more complicated for us.”
Kristin Bonoyer, the section chief for Adult Services, added that the agency has developed safety protocols for visits to adult care facilities and facilities that care for children.
But when coupled with the day-to-day stress of living in the COVID-19 environment, the work can be taxing for employees who visit those facilities. They worry about not only contracting the virus, but unknowingly spreading it as well, she said.
“The awareness has increased definitely. You don’t realize the things you’ve taken for granted – the cleaning procedures, things like pumping gas or going to the grocery store,” Bonoyer said. “You have to be mindful if you’re used to visiting family or checking on folks. You must be conscious of doing that because we are still meeting with the public. We’re still going into these facilities.”
COVID-19 has also slowed the court system, which is critical to the care of some CCDSS clients. “We do guardianship for some citizens and the court system is delayed right now,” Black said. “So, we have people who are kind of in limbo that we have to monitor and care for until we can get to the court system and figure out legal issues with those individuals.”
The virus has also taken a toll on clients who no longer enjoy the previous level of personal contact with staff or the companionship of other seniors.
“Some are fearful because they have people walking into their rooms in masks and gowns,” Black said. “They can’t go into the dining halls to eat. They have to eat in their rooms. Some are being isolated and if they suffer from dementia, it’s hard for them to comprehend why they are being isolated.”
Jackson added that the families of clients are also having a tough time because they are unable to visit loved ones to make sure that they are receiving proper care.
“We’re really concerned about the isolation and certainly know that, as caregivers are not able to go to visit their loved ones in nursing and assisted living facilities, we anticipate and forecast that our Adult Protective Services reports [complaints] will increase,” Jackson said.
Through the change, challenges and fears brought on by COVID-19, Jackson said her respect for the Social Services staff has grown.
“We’re just thankful and very proud of our staff that none of them have quit,” Jackson said. “We were expecting them to refuse to go into [elderly care] facilities even with PPEs because they’re putting themselves and their families at risk. We haven’t had a single employee to walk out. Every day they have remained dedicated and committed to this work.” — Greg Childress
Liana Humphrey has seen the dark side of Charlotte’s rapid economic growth for years as rents rose and affordability became more of a concept than a reality, but COVID-19 has really brought it into perspective for the community.
“On one level, that’s been really exciting,” she said of Charlotte’s growth. “But what I’ve observed too is that economic opportunity has not been broadly shared. Gaps that were evident during the [previous] recession have only widened.”
Humphrey moved to Charlotte almost nine years ago when people were just coming out of the Great Recession. She left her nonprofit career to try on corporate life at Bank of America after going back to school for her MBA.
She ultimately went back to her roots, though, about two years ago and took a job as Chief Marketing Officer with Crisis Assistance Ministry (CAM), which provides assistance?and advocacy for people in financial crisis, helping them move toward self-sufficiency.
The organization, which has been around for 45 years, operates as a kind of financial emergency room for Mecklenburg County residents. It has a fund to help people with rent and utilities to avoid evictions and shut offs. It also has a furniture bank and clothing store and offers financial coaching and counseling.
Humphrey says CAM usually serves individuals who have leases, and in some cases mortgages, but the COVID-19 response has been a lot different.
Thousands of people who live in hotels and motels as their primary residence were facing eviction as the state shut down. Many of them lost jobs and incomes, “and they were in a real crunch,” Humphrey said.
“What’s different about this situations is this was very rapidly unfolding,” she added.
When CAM usually works with people being evicted through a court process, they have anywhere from 10 to 30 days to help and get a situation under control.
“When we’re getting calls from people in hotels, they’re saying ‘they’re going to turn me out in the next hour or in the next day,’” Humphrey said. “We had to sort of throw a process together on the fly.”
Humphrey and her colleagues worked around the clock to prevent evictions in process at hotels and motels and to proactively prevent more. They worked with hotels and residents to make payments and arrangements. They also worked with Legal Aid to try and understand how Chief Justice Cheri Beasley’s order to halt evictions could apply to the group of people taking up residence there, usually considered homeless officially.
It turned out many people living in hotels and motels were covered under landlord-tenant and consumer protection laws, and so CAM started educating hotels about eviction court processes. Eventually Attorney General Josh Stein also got involved and sent letters to more than 100 hotels in the Charlotte area about following the law.
That dramatically reduced evictions, and though there are still some happening, it was nothing to the scale of when COVID-19 first hit, Humphrey said.
She noted that while a lot of people have expressed gratitude for CAM’s help, there’s also a lot of concern about how temporary the fix is – they are trying to balance having no income while still racking up room charges.
“For residents in hotels, they’re going through a very stressful and emotional time,” Humphrey said.
CAM continues to work with hotels, they city and the Greater Charlotte Apartment Association to come up with a plan that works for everyone and to prevent a “tsunami” of evictions when courts open again June 1.
The organization has spent more than $600,000 to date in privately-raised funds (meant for the agency) to help 1,300 families living in over 50 hotels. It has had to step out of its usual lane to meet a dire need in the community, but it was never a question for the organization.
“We just felt this was important,” Humphrey said. “This is what we’re called to do.”
She added that she and her colleagues have a lot of faith the community will help them fill the gap as well to keep assisting those who are in need during the pandemic. For more information or to help, visit crisisassistance.org . — Melissa Boughton