The coronavirus has forced many in western North Dakota to work from home in an effort to mitigate the spread of the virus. While they're isolated at home, many others are on the front lines responding to the pandemic.

The Press talked with essential workers in health, public safety, education and travel about how their lives have changed. Here are their stories.

Health

Sherry Adams, Executive Officer for Southwest District Health Unit, is no stranger to pandemics or disasters. She's planned for and worked during them before.

She started to suspect that COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, would become a pandemic when the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency.

"I kind of knew that once this was heading in that direction, things were not going to be the same," Adams said.

She was right.

Adams arrives at work at 6:30 a.m. and works well into the night, often not leaving the building until 7:30 p.m. or later. She's on call 24/7. There's no official breaks; she eats as she goes and walks around the health unit for a break.

"You learn to do many things at once," she said. "My day consists primarily of multiple briefings at the state level and at the local level as well as many phone calls, many texts, many emails, and just trying very hard to keep our communities informed with the current information. I’ve had to task out a lot of different things to various staff people. Some of the day to day operations we’ve had to scale back."

Adams communicates with staff who are working from home, as well as community partners, in one form or another, almost daily.

After dinner at home, she relaxes a little and talks to her husband. She goes to bed early when she can - right after the nightly news.

"(I) go to bed, get up and it starts all over again … It seems very surreal," Adams said. "I think the other thing that’s very surreal to me is we’ve planned for this very scenario, and watching it unfold as we’ve planned is very awe inspiring. This is exactly what we’ve been planning (for) and now it’s coming true, and it’s very hard to get past that, what’s real and what’s not real … and telling yourself it really is true and it’s happening."

She's deployed to disaster areas before, which also required long days, so she's worked through 14-hour work days before.

"The difference is this isn’t going to end after a two week deployment; this is going to go on and on and on, so that's a big difference mentally," Adams said. "Often when you’re sent on a deployment, you know there’s a start date and an end date, and you’re gone and you know you’re going to work very long days. But then you go back home. This one is - we’re working a very long deployment that we don’t know when the end date is."

Public Safety

Capt. David Wilkie of the Dickinson Police Department is attending a lot less in-person meetings, as are the rest of the department.

"We're not doing (many) large group meetings, and if we are, we're trying to maintain that 6 ft. of distance," he said. "We realize that with our officers being out in the public responding to calls ... the probability of them getting exposed is a lot higher. Everybody's got masks. Everybody's got gloves ... We assigned safety glasses."

Their custodian is working overtime to sanitize the facility.

"She's spending a lot more time on the high-traffic areas, like our roll-call room, the doors that everybody has to go through ... We're going through a lot of cleaner up here, a lot of disinfectant, that should something come into the building, it wouldn't have much of a chance to stay in here," Wilkie said.

Some of their procedures have changed because the courts aren't seeing people.

"District court has put out some new guidelines that these people can bond out now. Where it used to be that they had to go to jail for somethings, there's now bonds for that. That's an attempt to keep people out of the system until this thing blows over or we have more of a control over it," Wilkie said.

Many arrests of Stark County residents will for the time being result in a promise to appear, including reckless driving, leaving the scene of an accident, disorderly conduct and possession of drugs.

Apart from not seeing as many outside people, Wilkie says their days aren't too different.

"It's pretty much business as usual," Wilkie said. "All of our staff are still working. We don't have anybody who's assigned to work from home yet."

Travel

Kelly Braun, airport manager for the Dickinson Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport, describes the atmosphere there as "tense."

"Obviously, we have passengers that are flying in and flying out and there are a lot of unknowns ... The feeling is very anxious," he said. "There are a lot of unknowns when you're dealing with the public, and the employees out here ... there's a lot of anxiety because you don't know, and it's a little scary."

To avoid infection, staff in the airport are using personal protection equipment including face masks and gloves.

They disinfect the facility twice a day, and to avoid the risk of contamination, airport employees are split between two different shifts, and those who can work from home are doing so.

"We've got our staff split into two platoons so that if we have a direct exposure, we don't infect our other coworkers and we don't have to do the 14-day quarantine ... which would effectively close the airport, which is not an option."

Braun said that enplanement numbers (i.e. the number of people boarding a plane) are way down.

"I don't know how much longer the aviation industry can continue to function ... As of right now, we've had two flight cancellations because there were no passengers getting on or off the aircraft ... Every body's taking it day by day and flight by flight and making those adjustments," he said.

After years of continued growth, Dickinson's airport has been hit hard.

"We've seen continued growth month over month, year over year, since the low point in mid-2015. This year we were on track to be at more than 25,000 or more enplanements ... The COVID-19 virus has knocked our enplanements down 80% or more, and the disruption in the oil and gas industry has compounded that issue. I always say that the airport parking lot is a barometer of what's going on in our community, and the parking lot is empty, so that speaks volumes to what's happening here in southwest North Dakota."