Lauren Cox

Metro Transit driver

Lauren Cox, 56, is one of Metro Transit’s cheeriest bus drivers, greeting passengers with a smile and a “Good morning” when they board and a “Have a good day!” when they depart. That’s always been the best part of the job, said Cox, who has been driving a bus for nearly 15 years. With the onset of COVID-19, she’s had to be a bit more stern. Metro Transit requires that riders wear masks. Cox won’t open her door to let a rider on if they are not wearing a face covering. But she’s armed with masks for anybody who asks for one. “I don’t make the rules,” she said. “I just try to follow them. It’s difficult at times because not everybody adheres to the rules.” Still, the pandemic won’t keep Cox from getting behind the wheel, even on a recent Tuesday when she locked her keys inside her house and didn’t have a way to work. She took a cab to the bus garage and got her bus rolling down Lake Street. “This is very important,” she said. “I am out here always trying to help.” — Tim Harlow

Stacy Koppen and crew

St. Paul Public Schools Nutrition Services team

A school building, Stacy Koppen says, is not only a place for learning. School offers emotional support, shelter, internet connectivity. But as director of Nutrition Services for the St. Paul Public Schools, Koppen notes that one of the most important contributions is feeding kids. Providing a meal or two means that stretched and stressed parents won’t have to choose between buying groceries or paying for a prescription. So when COVID-19 hit, Koppen and 200-plus team members ramped up the essential work they’ve always done, making and delivering meal boxes: 400,000 meals a week on average, totaling a remarkable 9 million USDA-funded meals since the pandemic began. Under the direction of district chef Ricardo Abbott, those tasty boxes might include tacos, Asian noodles, lentils and basmati rice, cereal bars, fruit, milk and more, delivered right to families’ doors via school bus. Said Koppen: “Children wait for them and jump and cheer.”

Jane Tierney

Program manager, Edina Schools Community Ed

Jane Tierney’s rule No. 1? Do not panic. You have three days to transform your spring schedule for the suddenly homebound kids of essential workers and your staff is cut from 125 employees to seven? Don’t panic. You need to figure out how to keep 200 children in your summer program safe in two buildings from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day? Got it. “In community education,” said Tierney, program manager for Edina Schools Community Education, “you’ve got to be ready to pivot quickly.” Her team successfully “built routines” from March to May; over the summer, kids stayed in groups of 10 with the same masked staff person all day; wipe-downs were frequent and nobody got sick. “Kids were saying it was the best summer ever,” Tierney said, adding that some summer protocols will carry over into the hybrid fall. “We’re really proud of our staff. And we got so many e-mails and messages from parents grateful that their kids are so joyful again.”

Rob Hinrichs

EMT and firefighter

Ron Hinrichs remembers “tons of flu calls” earlier this year. Now the part-time Roseville firefighter and EMT in the emergency department at Abbott Northwestern Hospital wonders about that. “We’re realizing that [COVID-19] was most likely here in December. How many people were we treating and exposing ourselves to? First responders walk into things not always knowing what’s going on.” But rushing in is in his blood; his uncle was also a firefighter. Hinrichs, who has a business degree and works full-time in sales, joined the Roseville fire department in 2011; 12 months later, they put him through EMT training. “We’re adding in layers of protection that are new every time,” he said. Still, he stays COVID alert when responding to a fire, a car accident or a medical emergency, and stays vigilant about protection while working in the ER. “For whatever reason, I’m able to function on not a lot of sleep. I enjoy that I can still help.”

Deepti Pandita, M.D.

Chief health information officer, Hennepin Healthcare

As COVID-19 spread globally in March, Dr. Deepti Pandita lost sleep knowing the inevitable next steps. To keep patients safe, Hennepin Healthcare would need to quickly shut down elective clinic operations, cutting off vulnerable patients from essential medical care and equally valuable human touch. Pandita and her informatics team began “all hands on deck” brainstorming, “so that our patients did not feel we had abandoned them.” Within 48 hours, the team created a telehealth service answering patients’ e-mails through an electronic medical records portal; within three weeks, the service was fully running with added video and audio capabilities and enabling links to video visits in Somali and Spanish. Pandita, who also sees patients at the hospital’s dedicated COVID-19 clinic, said virtual care, in some form, is here to stay. “It has allowed us to engage with patients with geographical and transportation barriers, and has been well received by providers.”

Nadia Higgins and Stella Nyakundi

Public health nurses, Head Start

Securing enough masks for their precious cargo was just the first challenge for nurses Nadia Higgins and Stella Nyakundi, fondly known by colleagues as “Stadia.” This summer, volunteers sewed 2,000 masks that were delivered to parents in the Parents in Community Action Head Start (PICA) community. But having masks brought up more challenges: How do we teach kids to keep them on? Not share them? Not fear them? For kids with autism, Higgins noted, “facial expression is crucial.” The answer was a charming video featuring calming nurse Nadia explaining the importance of wearing a mask, her exaggerated squinty eyes signifying a great big smile underneath. She was assisted by Wally, an enormous and adorable masked stuffed bear. The video was sent to all PICA parents this summer to prepare their kids for returning to classes in the fall. By the end of the first week of school, even the babies were smiling, Higgins said.

“It’s amazing how resilient these kids are.”