WholeFoods Magazine: Person of the Year 2020: Frontline Heroes

WholeFoods Magazine: Person of the Year 2020: Frontline Heroes

Thank YOU. You are our heroes. Thank you to the healthcare practitioners who dove into the challenge of fighting a virus they knew very little about. Thank you to the natural products retailers who fought to keep their doors open so a worried public could access the products that help support a healthy immune system. Thank you to the manufacturers and suppliers who ensured that those products remained available while also assisting with production and distribution of medical supplies and desperately needed products. And to so many others—the first responders, the letter carriers and delivery drivers, the sanitation workers, all those who set out to make a difference day after day we thank you. On these pages, some of heroes who are serving on the frontlines of this pandemic share their fears, struggles, motivations, and lessons learned.

In the trenches

“At the height of the pandemic, there was one day…a Thursday…where CODE BLUEs, meaning someone was dying, were being had every 15 minutes,” shares Kecia Gaither, M.D., MPH, FACOG, Director, Perinatal Services, NYC Health+Hospitals/Lincoln. “It was surreal, like something out of a Stephen King movie. It was horrific to be in the hospital while this was happening, and then to leave the hospital and see tents filled with sick COVID patients. And an 18 wheeler…seeing deceased patients being loaded. I fear a repeat of that scenario.”

Also based in NYC, Ken Redcross, M.D., Founder of Redcross Concierge and author of Bond, was witness to those frightening early days. “The beginning of the pandemic was like nothing I had ever been through in my almost 20 years of practice,” he says. “I was driving around town, trying to use my contacts at the hospital or anywhere to help me get masks and face shields and a new thermometer as I made house calls to area residents in Manhattan, in Co-op City, and Brooklyn. Not to mention trying to support patients who were wrestling with the fact that they couldn’t be in the hospital with an ill parent or loved one…some of whom unfortunately died alone. Or trying to help a patient cope with the fact that after the death of his spouse, only a few family members could be at the burial.”

A particularly painful conversation: “I remember having a long discussion during a house call with a patient and the patient’s family,” Dr. Redcross recalls. “The patient was in the living room with a low-grade temp and was short of breath, and quite honestly belonged in the hospital. The patient refused to go to the hospital, saying it would be better to ‘die at home’ as opposed to being further exposed to other COVID patients and having to be alone. It was emotionally painful to see these stories play out for several months, and even to this day still creates a heavy heart as we still battle COVID.”

Jaime A Salas Rushford, M.D., volunteer at Coney Island Brooklyn Hospital New York City (Instagram: fitbodymd), recounts another heartbreak: “One of my most significant patient encounters was during late evening hours a few weeks into the full-blown pandemic strike. Among the hundreds of patients, I came before a young female with her pre-teen son. There, among the sick and dying, I asked what brought them here—what were her symptoms? She just looked at me and started to cry. She told me, ‘Doctor, we are hungry. I have not been able to work and have not been able to find food for my son and myself.’ Listening to those words, just overwhelming emotions come over me. I realized that COVID had evolved into not only a medical crisis, but a full-blown socio-economic crisis. I just thought, I am standing in New York City, the biggest and most resourceful city in the World, and we have people suffering and dying from hunger. This virus had brought the entire world to its knees.”

Indeed. Howard Schiffer, Founder & President of Vitamin Angels, knows the global urgency: “COVID-19 has had undeniable effects on the communities we serve. Government health programs have been delayed or postponed. Food supply chains have been disrupted. The need for our nutrition programs is now greater than ever. We have been working alongside our program partners on the ground to respond to the changing landscape to deliver services in a safe and effective manner. We are seeing unparalleled acts of bravery, kindness, and resilience from our global community of health workers. From curbside delivery of our prenatal vitamins and minerals to expecting moms in Iowa, to nutritional advice distributed via mobile carriers in South Africa, around the world our community and supply chains continue to adapt so that every child everywhere has the opportunity for a healthy start.”

Natural products retailers, brands, and suppliers stepped up. A small sampling of the efforts: The Dr. Majeed Foundation made donations to help alleviate food insecurity exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, including 5,500 10kg bags of rice to the people of Magadi, Karnataka. The Sprouts Healthy Communities Foundation donated $1.6 million to nonprofit partners addressing local issues amplified by the pandemic. Natural Grocers and its customers raised $260,000 for local food banks during the store’s 65th anniversary celebration in August. Whole Foods Market announced the Nourishing our Neighborhoods program to move food from where it’s available to where it’s needed most. JSL Foods, a third-generation family owned company, announced the launch of “Fortune Cares,” a charitable donation program to help families affected by food instability issues. Lycored partnered with the Food Bank for Monterey County to spread positivity throughout the U.S. by calling on industry professionals to write anonymous notes of encouragement, appreciation, and positivity that were included with meals delivered to seniors and the homeless.

Efforts were also made to support frontline workers. Korea Ginseng Co. donated ginseng products to support medical personnel and public servants. AIDP donated product samples to healthcare workers and first responders. World Organic Corp. and its owners, the Licata family, donated $11,000 worth of KN95 and 3-ply disposable face masks to the American Red Cross. Ashland diverted some of its plant capacity to manufacture and package 16,500 gallons of hand sanitizer, which was donated to hospitals, first responders, health care facilities, and more.
Paragon Laboratories donated its supply of N95 respirators to hospitals in the Southern California area—that’s 3,600 masks. (And so many others stepped up. Follow the “Community Care” tag on for more.)

Words of Wisdom

“Be honest with your teams,” says Canada-Holda of NOW Health Group. “As soon as our team received information, our CEO was prompt to share the information with the company. Sharing difficult news and being transparent is very important in a time of crisis. I would also like to say to those frontline heroes ‘thank you’ and be resilient. Perhaps this is the moment for which you have been created. Make sure to take care of yourself and try to recharge because others are counting on you. Leading through anxiety is difficult and we may never go back to being normal, but it is up to us to create new paths by being unbreakable and using humor.”

Lau seconds that. “I think the best part of keeping employees’ morale up is just introducing a bit of fun into their daily lives. I try to provide them outlets and let them spend some time doing those things at work, since everyone is basically just shuttling between work and home.” His advice for the rest of us: “Don’t forget to make time for joy. I think with the current situation, the stress at work, home, and life in general, it’s important to create the space and time for the little joys in life.”

This is a challenging time, Thurston agrees, “However, we are fortunate that consumers are recognizing the role supplements and functional foods can play in ensuring we have all the right nutrients to support a healthy immune system.”

And we’ll be here to help meet their needs. “This is our time to rise to the occasion and remind everyone how important our work is,” says Schiffer. “Although none of us have any prior experience with a pandemic and it’s all happening in real time, it’s very important that we respond quickly and keep our focus on our work. For Vitamin Angels, this means getting our nutrition interventions to the communities who need it most, so that we can help mitigate the long-term impacts of COVID-19.”

Keeping the doors open

As lockdowns went into place, with orders varying across the country, businesses scrambled to find out where they stood. In April, the Natural Products Association (NPA) reported that in Nevada, Governor Steve Sisolak ordered health food stores to close, which NPA noted would restrict consumer access to a range of essential products available at health food stores. NPA added that the order did not follow guidance from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). A grassroots effort led by NPA received tremendous support. Stay Healthy! of Las Vegas was one of the stores that was forced to close, but on April 8 took to social media to let customers know that they were deemed essential and able to reopen that day. A message on the Stay Healthy! website announced, “Thank You to Mayor Goodman, Senator Chris Brooks and everyone who reached out to Governor Sisolak. Your voice has been heard! Stay Healthy & Strong Las Vegas!”

In most of the nation, natural products retailers were allowed to remain open, but there were difficulties. “Here in Philadelphia, we were basically just a little bit behind New York/New Jersey in terms of the the curve in the springtime, which was actually very advantageous to us because it gave us a couple of weeks to prepare in a way that New York didn’t have, with tragic consequences,” Jon Roesser, General Manager, Weavers Way Cooperative Association, WholeFoods 2020 Retailer of the Year, told us, adding, “We went through that period in April and May where there was a lot of fear, and the demand for home delivery and curbside pickup was through the roof. Emotions were really, really high.” Roesser estimates that eight out of 10 consumers were positive. “Like, ‘The co-op means so much to us. We are so appreciative that you guys are doing this essential work, keeping us fed.’” The other 20%? “They were kind of the opposite: “You should shut down the co-op. It’s too dangerous.’”

In the Midwest, the team at Fruitful Yield Health Foods throughout Illinois was also feeling the pressure. “Working on the front line has been difficult for all our employees, but our retail employees in The Fruitful Yield health food stores have been very strong,” says Michelle Canada-Holda, Vice President of Human Resources, NOW Health Group. “It’s been challenging for the team to help sick customers and deal with belligerent customers about mask wearing. They have done a tremendous job working on the front line during this pandemic.”

Meeting consumer needs

“The coronavirus has given a mighty blow to all aspects of human life, from the daily habits of the common person to the economies of nations across the planet,” says Shaheen Majeed, President Worldwide, Sabinsa. “From the industry point of view, there was a huge disruption to the supply chain. We’ve all had to face challenges at various levels, from keeping our workers healthy to jumping through hoops to get material to customers showing unprecedented demand for products, all to help people stay well.”

Companies saw what was coming, and scrambled to get ready. Wilson Lau, Vice President, Nuherbs, recounts the early days: “We’re China experts, so have been dealing with fallout from COVID-19 since the beginning of the year. But when it first hit the U.S., it seemed like things changed every few hours. Demand for immune support supplements skyrocketed, and our customers needed more material as quickly as possible, so we were working very hard to take care of them. Then our county in California issued one of the first shelter-in-place mandates, and it took a few hours of panic before we realized that going by the wording in the order, we were considered ‘essential’ and could continue operations after initiating distancing and other preventative measures. That was a really stressful time, but fortunately now we have a lot more information about how to do what we need to do, safely. We’ve tried to maintain good communications with our grower and processor partners and manufacturer customers, as well as the retailers and practitioners that sell our finished products, which is important.”

Beth Lambert, CEO, Herbalist & Alchemist, Inc., recalls, “When the orders for shut down started—in San Francisco, New York, New Jersey—colleagues from the AHPA [American Herbal Products Association] board in these areas reached out to each other. We shared best practices for work schedules, essential worker documents, testing practices, cleaning, deliveries, shipments and many other policies. Just being able to talk to others making the same decisions in these high-risk areas was so very helpful. The long-term relationships that we have built over the years brought real trust and support at the most challenging of times.”

Canada-Holda points to how business changed: “Our biggest challenges have been keeping every single employee safe during this pandemic. We started our efforts in February of this year with travel restrictions and implementing extra safety protocols that were new to the workplace. As the pandemic unfolded, we continued keeping our manufacturing, distribution and retail locations sanitized with environmentally friendly surgical spray cleaning, and implementing many tough policies that kept the workplace safe. At times, our efforts may not have been popular, but it allowed us to keep our businesses open and reduce employee exposure to the coronavirus. Our leaders and HR team worked very hard with employees to help them overcome fear and be confident that they were safe at work.”

There were struggles, of course. As Lambert shares: “In the early part of the pandemic, the stress of day-to-day changes in learning about best practices was a tremendous challenge. Employees were scared. Customers were scared. There was frantic panic buying. The volume of business in March, April, and May was unprecedented. We were selling products at multiples of our projections. Our accounting and marketing staff were set up to work from home. Essential workers went to split shifts and for many weeks we were working up to 7 days. Projecting consumer demand was extremely challenging. We ran and re-ran projections. My business partner, herbalist David Winston RH(AHG), helped us to prioritize the products we needed to keep in stock to help our customers. We were able to use our website to ration products for a short time, then we took the additional step to only sell to existing customers to slow down demand, just to give our staff time to catch up and normalize their lives.”

Offering an international view of the supply side, Majeed says, “For several weeks, when India first went into lockdown, interstate transportation was closed to most traffic. Each state had to act independently, with priority given to food and supplies to meet the local population’s needs. When you’re running a manufacturing business, goods are not always in your region, so interrupted transportation is a problem. For example, much of our turmeric production is done in the state of Karnataka, but the raw material itself is largely grown in another state, Tami Nadu. The government did eventually recognize ‘essential’ businesses and granted transportation permits for vehicles to cross state lines. Police checkpoints were sometimes met with resistance, and the spread of the virus was met with fear. At first when our trucks went out, some wouldn’t come back for days. We monitored the safety of our employees, the farmers, and everyone involved to continue to deliver our ingredients. There were also issues at port side—both air or sea. Cargo vessels were limited, many due to port staffing issues. Migrant workers were hit hard during this time, as they all returned home, causing labor shortages everywhere in
India. Once the ports did open, and materials could move, supply and demand ruled the economy. Obviously prices increased, yet we did not pass these costs to our customers because our only mission was to deliver to our customers during the peak demand time in March
and April.”

Addressing fear, finding strength

“My biggest challenge was pushing through the fear…the fear of acquiring the virus, transmitting it to my family,” shares Dr. Gaither. “Also, since I take care of high-risk patients exclusively, I had marked concern for them. Given the poor knowledge regarding this novel virus, I couldn’t discuss possible effects on pregnancy due to the paucity of data on pregnancies impacted by COVID 19. Not having information and a sense of calm to give to anxious pregnant
patients—that was not a good feeling.”

The fear and uncertainty were outweighed by the urgent needs. “Taking great care of my high-risk pregnant patients to ensure I had a good perinatal outcome motivated me,” Dr. Gaither continues. “My practice was to assess vitamin D levels on all patients even prior to the pandemic. Once the pandemic hit, I discussed the necessity of adequate vitamin D levels in an attempt to boost the immune system, in an attempt to decrease the incidence of them getting the virus. Pregnancy is a point of immunocompromise, so vitamin D supplementation was a very important adjunct to their prenatal care regimen.”

Dr. Salas Rushford also points to the lack of knowledge about the novel virus as a major challenge. “The sheer panic this created among patients, staff, and public alike created a very tense environment. The healthcare system was not prepared for the volume of patients and acute treatment of so many. It was a true challenge to accept that we needed to practice medicine against a disease we know so little about. The degree of mental and physical fatigue was just overwhelming. Long hours at work followed by solitary subway rides back to your place of sleep. For many weeks I was the only human being on the subway. NYC was a ghost town. You could feel the fear just from walking around. The city that never sleeps just turned
completely quiet.

“I did my medical training in New York City,” Dr. Salas Rushford continues. “During all those years you create lifelong relationships with friends that become your extended family. I was not only listening to the news, but directly learning from my residency friends what was going on, on ground zero. When you study medicine, you are entrusted with a privilege of knowledge that is meant to save lives. When I heard that NYC was asking for volunteers, I did not think twice. I have lived through devastating hurricanes, earthquakes, but COVID was clearly a whole different threat. Us health care professionals became the soldiers in this war. And I knew that the only thing in my heart that needed to be done was go and give a hand.”

Dr. Redcross echoes that. “I was reminding myself that this is why I felt I was created. It may sound a bit ‘pollyannaish,’ but I am serious in that. I adore patients and the bond that is
created—I even wrote a book called Bond—and I feel blessed to have been gifted with this profession, so I honestly felt I owed it to them to do my best. I am not perfect, but I did my best to leave it all on the field.”

At Vitamin Angels, says Schiffer, “Our motivation is always our connection to the women, babies and children we’re serving. They were already nutritionally vulnerable before COVID-19 and now their lives are even more at risk. This is what keeps us working as hard as we can.”

That sentiment was echoed throughout the industry. “Our motivation has been to help others live a longer healthier life through the quality of elderberry ingredients that we produce,” says Devon Bennett, CEO of INS Farms. “Given the concerns of COVID-19 and immune health, we find that our work is more meaningful and has a greater purpose than ever before. It’s really motivating to know that we are making a difference in this world to the lives of others with the elderberry ingredients that we produce. Both our elderberry Eldermune and Berry Shield ingredients would not be successful if it wasn’t for the dedication and commitment of our frontline workers at INS Farms. Going to work every day knowing that we can make a difference in people’s lives has certainly helped us through these difficult times.”

Hearing from consumers helped. “Wonderful emails and calls from our customers gave us much needed moral support,” says Lambert. “Their many thanks for staying open and continuing to provide information about product availability were so very nourishing. The great support we got from our suppliers—diggers going back out into the fields for Echinacea, airlifts from France and Asia, kept us going. I personally was motivated by the tremendous contributions from our staff. We were a ‘learning team’ and worked to communicate and support each other.”

Majeed adds, “Every individual at Sabinsa is well aware of the fact that our products fall under essential goods and are very important for meeting societal health needs. Though the COVID-19 spread has impacted our employee‘s lives, their trust in their managers brought them back to work as soon as possible. The management has worked with employees to have their confidence by providing a safe work zone with strictly enforced hygienic practices, and by ensuring access to health care through arrangements with hospitals, insurance agencies to cover COVID-19 related expenses, providing free hand sanitizer, masks, and transportation. They appreciate that we are keeping a close watch on the health of employees.”

Also noting the motivating power of making immunity-building products to support the health of the community, Canada-Holda says, “We know that we are empowering people to lead healthier lives with these products and actively living the NOW mission in 2020 has been a driver and motivator for us. The quicker we can ship the product and sell the product, the quicker it can help people who truly need to boost immunity. We have also quietly donated product to health care
frontline workers and others with compromised immune systems, who need them now more than ever.”

Working to make sure the employees knew they were supported was a priority, as well. “We were motivated by demonstrating to our employees that we truly care about their health,” Canada-Holda says, noting that the company provided employees with immunity-building vitamins, provided no-contact thermometers for each employee’s household, distributed masks and hand sanitizers, and more.

Taking time to invest in online training for staff and upgrading to new systems has been key, Mark Thurston, President of AIDP, adds. “Quite frankly, at AIDP we are very busy with the increased demand for our products. This keeps our team motivated by seeing the success of our efforts. With all the trade show cancellations, AIDP has been able to donate product samples to healthcare workers and first responders. Our sales team directed some of the donations to the local charity of their choice, helping them stay connected to their respective communities.”

Lambert adds, “We make sure people take time off when they need it, and during the most hectic weeks, tried to keep our staff from getting burned out. I think we all got a bit fried. We stayed conscious of our communication, discussing and getting input on policy decisions, and truly listening. We instituted regular Microsoft Teams meetings with our remote staff to make sure the on-site and off-site staff feel they are on the same team even though they don’t see each other in person. We got cameras for all computers so we could just see each other.”

Supporting one another

At NOW and Fruitful Yield, says Canada-Holda, “We helped each other like family. We have provided individual lunches for the extra overtime we needed as well as food and supplies for one of our locations on the East Coast where they were struggling to get groceries and toilet paper. We issued spot bonuses, and when we had to keep employees out for illness, many employees pitched in and helped keep lines running and stores open…We also waived the fee on our online mental health benefit so employees can receive free counseling from their home, as we recognize stress and anxiety are at an all-time high. We also have care partners available to help our team during crisis, so they have someone to talk to around the clock.”

Such support is essential. Dr. Gaither encourages, “To my colleagues, share your feelings with people who have been in the trenches, who can understand. Do things for yourself—a walk, exercise, aromatherapy, listening to music, painting…whatever brings a sense of calm to your mind. Ensure that you take your immune boosters, vitamin D prime among them.”

Isolation is a concern, notes Thurston. “We encourage video calls where we are able to see one another versus conference calls. Positive reinforcement is provided and key successes are celebrated. In addition, we encourage strong team support with the office, warehouse and field sales.”

Lau also stresses that need: “Knowing that we are in this together as a tight knit group of co-workers and friends that have worked together for many years helps keep us all going. It gives us great joy to be able to do something positive and make contributions that improve other people’s lives and helps them stay healthy. We have a monthly ‘socially distanced’ potluck lunch that gives us a nice change of pace from our shelter-in-place lifestyle. I must say, it’s really refreshing because it provides all of us a variety of food that we may not normally cook for ourselves. Since most people are not going to restaurants for meals, this is a welcome change.”

Maintaining morale hasn’t been easy, Schiffer admits. “We’re a very close knit organization and we’re all missing the proximity to one another. We formed our own ‘CDC’ (Connecting During COVID) Committee, which is in charge of coming up with innovative ways for us to stay in touch such as coordinating virtual holiday events and drive-by birthday celebrations. It’s been a powerful reminder of how much we enjoy each other’s company.”

It really does come down for caring for one another. “I think I can speak for a majority of healthcare heroes, in that we do this work day in and out for the love of our career and the love for our patients, never expecting any accolades,” says Dr. Redcross. “I feel what we do is truly a calling, and I feel proud to be a part of the ‘healthcare family’ with all of us who have dedicated our lives—literally—to those that we are so fortunate to serve. As far as how we will continue to battle this virus going forward, I’d say…regardless of the current political challenges at the moment…We’ve got this!”

To that, Dr. Salas Rushford adds, “I think that among all the death and suffering, we need to realize that the entire world came together as one. War, hatred, anger and many other permeating emotions came to a halt, even if briefly. We can unite as one world, and we saw this.”

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