Despite facing an increased risk of contracting COVID-19 and bringing the virus home to their families, hundreds of essential workers continue to keep the Wood River Valley safe and well-fed.
Unlike first responders or emergency physicians, they may not directly attend to COVID patients. Yet—by subjecting themselves to lengthy public exposure every day—they continue to put their lives and well-being on the line.
The following are just a few of the many dedicated individuals who have worked hard to dispense vital prescriptions, keep public transportation flowing and ensure public spaces are clean. Over the past week, they shared with us their concerns, uncertainties and hopes.
Ashley Kelbert & Eric Humbach
Mountain Rides Operation Director Ashley Kelbert, pictured above, was driving one of the nonprofit organization’s public transportation buses in mid-March when news of the COVID-19 virus began spreading in the United States. She had been following the news and knew she had the symptoms.
The 39-year-old stepmother of three was stricken with the coronavirus while doing her job and went home to quarantine for four weeks. Her husband, Brian Obland, who also drives for Mountain Rides, was quarantined alongside her.
“I was able to do some scheduling and other administrative jobs while I was at home,” Kelbert said. “And no one else in my family got sick.”
An avid runner and mountain biker, Kelbert is still feeling the long-term effects of the coronavirus, but not enough to keep her from work. Both she and her husband still drive.
“It wasn’t so bad at the time, but now 15 weeks later, I still have headaches, heart palpitations and shortness of breath,” she said. “I think I’m one of two or three drivers who got it. Some drivers didn’t even know they were sick until the antibody test came back.”
Now that Kelbert is back in the office and driving buses, things have changed. Mountain Rides no longer charges fares to riders, which makes her job easier. Though bus driving wasn’t her first choice of occupation, Kelbert said she’s happy to serve a key role in her community.
“I always wanted to be a horse trainer,” she said. “One of the first jobs I ever had was working at River Grove farm in Hailey. But I love what I do now. Our buses are the only way for some people to get around, to go to the store or the hospital or to their jobs or to visit family members. A lot of people don’t drive cars or have cars. I enjoy being able to help people out. There are so many people who we see every day and who we know by name. We are all one family here.”
According to Mountain Rides Executive Director Wally Morgus, ridership wouldn’t be anywhere near where it is without the special efforts of maintenance workers to sanitize buses.
“I don’t want to lose any maintenance staff in this conversation,” Morgus said. “These folks have been absolutely critical in disinfecting and wiping down buses.”
Every morning, transit custodian Eric Humbach preps buses for passengers in Ketchum. As a frontline worker, he has concerns about catching COVID-19, but can’t let those get in the way of the job.
“Back in October and November, we used to use household multi-surface cleaner. Now we use a hospital-grade disinfectant,” he said. “We used to be able to run though a bus in about 30-40 minutes. Now, you have to take advantage of every minute you get because you know you’re going to need it.”
That means detailing the complete interior of each bus and re-stocking free masks and hand-sanitizer wipes for riders.
“I do what I do to keep drivers and the general public safe,” Humbach said. “I will step up to bat every day.
According to pharmacist Cathy Swink, those in her profession haven’t always been included in the conversation about essential healthcare workers. During the peak of the pandemic in Blaine County, for instance, a local pharmacy technician was turned away from a free coffee.
“Of course, the risks we’re up against have been minimal compared to ER doctors,” she said, “but we’re frontline workers, too, and we have treated COVID-19 patients.”
For 18 years, Swink—the co-founder of Ketchum’s Valley Apothecary—has fielded questions from regular customers about prescriptions, supplements and over-the-counter drugs. Now, as tourists enter town, the pharmacy is busier than ever.
To protect staff members and the community, the Valley Apothecary hasn’t officially opened its doors yet, she said, but continues to offer free delivery and curbside pickup.
“The door is propped open so people can walk up to ask questions, but no one can actually come into the store,” she said. “This is such a fluid situation, so we’re in no hurry to open—but when we do, masks will be required.”
During the depths of the COVID-19 crisis, the store hired a bartender who’d been put out of work to deliver prescriptions.
“We were thinking, ‘Great, this is our chance to employ someone to help serve the community,’” she said. “Our clients have been very appreciative of the [delivery] service.”
Swink also expressed gratitude to Blaine County residents for their mask-wearing and social-distancing efforts.
“Kudos to our community for taking this seriously and really coming together,” she said. “It’s important to keep being cautious, though—this is not the flu, and we’ve lost over 120,000 lives in a short time period.”