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In late August, Beverly Sherrill sent a bouquet of flowers to her daughter, an overworked physician’s assistant in Florence. At the time, it seemed to her like no one else cared much about acknowledging the struggles of healthcare workers anymore.
After all, back at the start of the pandemic, everyone was banging pots and pans together on their doorsteps at 5 p.m. and chipping in to deliver pizzas to hospitals for haggard doctors and nurses. But as the pandemic has waxed and waned, those initial efforts petered out. And yet, with the current spike in COVID-19 cases thanks to the Delta variant, driven primarily by the unvaccinated, healthcare workers are busier than ever before.
At the beginning of September, there were 18 times as many Oregonians hospitalized for the coronavirus as there were the same time last year. On top of that, anti-mask and anti-vaccine groups have started holding demonstrations outside hospitals in cities like Medford, Salem, and Sherill’s hometown, Florence.
She was looking for a way to counter the Florence rally when she connected with We Care, a campaign started in Medford by the progressive organizing group ORD2 Indivisible. Sherill mentioned the flowers she had sent to her daughter. “One gal down in Medford said, ‘Oh, we should do flowers!’ And that transformed—or, as some people like to say, blossomed—into the idea of doing care baskets, and doing snacks and notes of encouragement,” says Sherill.
By the next week, the Medford and Florence Indivisible chapters were collecting and distributing care packages of fresh fruit, coffee, treats, balloons, and hand-written notes of encouragement to local healthcare workers.
Since then, We Care has spread across Oregon to the Dalles, Salem, Astoria, Seaside, and (soon) Portland. Right now, the campaign is distributing over 30 care packages every Wednesday in Medford alone.
“It seems like such a small act when you’re dealing with such serious, dramatic things. But it’s so rewarding,” says Misha Hernandez, a labor representative from the Oregon Nurse’s Association. “That's what gives me joy: seeing nurses smiling and feeling like the community is behind them. That goes a long way.”
And when some nurses don’t even get a moment for a shift meal, a protein bar can make all the difference. With overflowing ICUs, unstable work schedules, and lean staffing to cut costs, nurses are under an immense amount of stress right now. “We call it the moral injury of nurses,” says Hernandez. And as public spaces begin to open back up, fewer people are paying attention to the emotional burnout that healthcare workers experience.
“There's a sense for all of us in the past year and a half, we’ve had to sort of triage mentally which issues we can focus on short term versus long term. And there's often a thought that someone else has their eye on the ball when it comes to hospitals,” says Kevin Mealy, a spokesman for the ONA.
For now, programs like We Care will continue to celebrate Oregon’s healthcare workers however they can. “COVID has become so politicized,” says Mealy. “It's easy to forget that there are nurses on the frontlines who’re just trying to care for people and get them healthy and get them back home. So, I do think there's a real value in showing [these] frontline workers and all the other types of frontline workers who help the hospital run, that we appreciate them.”
If you’d like to get involved with We Care, you can learn more about the campaign here.