A spotlight on San Juan County COVID-19 Response Team volunteers

Throughout the islands, people are stepping up in big ways to help their neighbors through the trying times of COVID-19. Many people have volunteered to grow, make, deliver and more.

“There’s an enormous amount of good work happening and so many islanders are involved,” San Juan County Department of Emergency Management Director Brendan Cowan told the Journal. “That energy is welcome and needed, but we want to remind everyone that all of these efforts need to be done in a thoughtful way that always prioritizes social distancing and safe practices to prevent disease spread.”

Cowan shared with the Journal the name of some of the volunteers helping the community remain on its feet during this crisis. The following three volunteers work directly with the county’s COVID-19 Response Team’s Emergency Operations Center.

“There’s no way to list all of the islanders who are doing good work, but it is encouraging to see the amazing response from the islands to such a difficult and challenging situation,” Cowan said.

Chuck Dalldorf

Chuck Dalldorf has lived in Friday Harbor full-time since 2017. He moved from Sacramento, California, where he worked as Chief of Staff for California State Sen. Richard D. Roth. Dalldorf spent most of his career in state and local government in both policy and media relations. He was Chief of Staff to three Sacramento mayors from 1999-2018, a highlight of his career, he said.

Dalldorf currently volunteers as the Public Information Officer for San Juan Island Fire and Rescue.

“In my previous professional roles, I served as Public Information Officer during two multi-agency Incident Command System incidents and served in an escalating wildfire in Lake and Napa Counties working to establish an evacuation center,” Dalldorf told the Journal.

Dalldorf explained he attended the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s incident command system training programs as a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxillary, as well as while working with the City of Sacramento and SJICF&R.

“I wanted to volunteer as it was consistent with my SJIF&R PIO role and I wanted to utilize my experience in assisting our community in any way I could during this global pandemic,” Dalldorf said. “I primarily volunteer because I love our community and our life here and I feel that I owe it to our community to contribute back through service for the privilege of living here.”

Dalldorf’s role during this pandemic has been to participate in both EOC’s public information office team and with the islands’ fire and emergency services operations’ Fire Operations Center.

“Our work involves a mix of developing timely proactive communication and accurate information for our residents,” Dalldorf said. “Our team develops and distributes factual information as it happens in live time, while also advising the EOC and community leaders on recommended information residents need.”

The challenge, Dalldorf explained, is ensuring the team is able to get the information out to the public in a timely manner while preserving accuracy. He said the team works to provide information to all islanders, regardless of which island they reside or what language they speak. The team works to provide factual information to balance what islanders may read on social media, he added.

“ All of this is done balancing the public health and safety needs of the community, ensuring privacy and being prepared to try innovative approaches to meet the diverse needs of our islands’ communities,” Dalldorf said.

The county’s pandemic response has reminded Dalldorf of how the islands are interdependent he said. Every island resident needs to be prepared at all times to help themselves for an extended period of time because they may receive no help from the state or federal government for a while, he explained.

“It is great that our islands all have unique cultural identities which are different from each other,” Dalldorf said. “When we face a disaster or a pandemic like COVID-19, our unique island communities come together and focus to ensure the health and safety of everyone living in the San Juan Islands.”

Kai Sanburn

Kai Sanburn has lived on Lopez since 1995. During her time on the island, she worked at the Lopez Medical Clinic as a nurse for 22 years and then at the Lopez School for a number of years, she said. Sanburn is a member of the Islands Oil Spill Association Board, which she said gave her a familiarity with the incident command system. She added that Cowan asked her to join the response team in March.

“Our community steps up, We understand the importance of supporting each other and the COVID threat calls for engagement from all of us, from respect for social distancing to the needs for processes and structures to be put in place,” Sanburn said. “As a nurse, it was clear that I would do what I could and the EOC effort was clear and well-directed.”

Sanburn is the Lopez Deputy Section Chief and was part of the Operations Surge Team, she explained.

“My primary role was to develop plans for a Basic Care Facility on Lopez,” Sanburn explained. “In the event that regional hospitals reached capacity and were unable to receive island patients, the facility would offer 24-hour basic medical care.”

Sanburn said the team was to prepare for up to 10 patients with a range of medical severity — from providing oxygen and medications to comfort care.

“It was a sobering process for a worst-case scenario,” Sanburn said. “The plans got drawn up and, gratefully, put-on the shelf without needing to be implemented.”

Sanburn added that similar plans are in place for both Orcas and San Juan islands.

The variety of skills and commitment from volunteers on the response team has been inspiring, Sanburn said.

“Many people have been working on this for months, navigating unknowns, the unpredictability of the disease trajectory, shortages of needed supplies, etc. It’s wonderful to dig deep with people you can count on.”

Sanburn noted that when public health efforts are proactively and effectively implemented, it can appear that nothing ever came of the health danger because risks are averted. She added that it can be easy for people to wonder if all the measures were really necessary when few people get sick.

“Where COVID has found its way into communities, the devastation is painfully clear,” Sanburn said. “I think people on the islands have been wonderful in response — and that is heartening.”

Nathan Kessler-Jeffrey

Nathan Kessler-Jeffrey and his wife Courtney are fairly new to the islands having moved here in January 2018 when he accepted the position of Executive Artistic Director for the San Juan Community Theatre. Piror to moving to San Juan Island, Kessler-Jeffrey was the Director of Education and Outreach at a small professional theater in north Seattle, Taproot Theatre Company.

“Courtney and I love it here, having recently purchased a home,” Kessler-Jeffrey said. “We also have a miniature Goldendoodle named River, who is really enjoying having both of us in the house during the Stay Home Stay Safe order.”

Kessler-Jeffrey said Cowan approached him after he had put “Love and support to our leaders, schools, medical professionals, artists, and whole community” on the theater’s marquee.

“I think he was looking for someone whose writing could address the anxiety and emotions we were all feeling as COVID was starting to impact the United States,” Kessler-Jeffrey said.

So Kessler-Jeffrey wrote. He wrote emails, he wrote the county’s Hot Topic alerts, he wrote fund requests and sought to remind the community that it is all in this together, he explained.

“As a theatre director and a playwright, I can’t build a ventilator, make a mask, or test someone for COVID,” Kessler-Jeffrey said. “What I have is a screen and a keyboard, and early in the crisis, my role became clear to me. To the best of my ability, my job was to use everything at my disposal to Turn Fear into Beauty.”

The volunteering helped Kessler-Jeffrey to calm his own nerves and anxieties, he noted. It helped him to treat other people better. He said his role in the response team is that of “word monkey.”

When provided a theme for the Hot Topic series, Kessler-Jeffrey said he tries his best to provide a human angle, give it some interest, then he passes it off to the other members of the public information team for editing and feedback.

“What is eventually published is a huge group effort, and we’re so lucky to have the team of people that we do,” Kessler-Jeffrey said.

There are nearly 70 people on the morning briefing call every day, Kessler-Jeffrey explained. He noted it’s incredible and there is so much that he likes about the response team. Everyone is a neighbor, a colleague or a friend, he added.

I think that’s one of the things that stood out to me,” Kessler-Jeffrey said, adding that the diversity and skills of the team is staggering. “We have a few experts in the leadership at the Emergency Operations Center, but so many of us are volunteers who do other things in the community — administrators, park rangers, computer programmers, theatre directors, etc.”

At the end of the day, however, Kessler-Jeffrey just wants everyone in the community to remember to be kind to one another.

“We’re all going through much the same experience, and if we can give each other grace, we’ll all be a lot happier about how we treated each other when we’re on the other side of the pandemic,” Kessler-Jeffrey said.

Want to help?

You can see the fruit of the response team’s labor and find up-to-date county information at sjccovid.com.

“The county has a ‘How to Help’ link on the COVID-19 page on the county website with links to how to make financial donations to nonprofits supporting the community and how to access information around volunteering and other opportunities to serve,” Cowan said. “While there’s enormous goodwill in the community right now, and lots of energy around volunteering, it may prove that some of the work won’t really get off the ground until it is once again safe for groups of people to gather and work together in close proximity.”