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Pandemic paycheck: Recognizing essential workers on Labor Day

Just like the Soap Box Derby, Cory Leonard said.

Akron, Ohio, is home to that storied, gravity-fueled downhill race, and Leonard, a molecular lab manager at WVU Medicine, couldn’t help feeling like he was participant in the event.

Normally, the merge onto Interstate 76 from I-79 makes for a lot of stop-and-go.

You’ve got the orange barrels and the Ohio Department of Transportation workers and the overall commuter traffic.

It was even worse back when LeBron was in town.

In the middle of night, in early April, however, when it started becoming clear that COVID-19 was going be the new king for this one, hardly anyone was on the highway, save for Leonard.

One straight trajectory, no stops until you get there. Just like the Derby.

At the finish line in Akron, a courier was waiting with a piece of equipment that couldn’t have been more vital.

“Thank you, thank you,” Leonard said, shaking the driver’s hand.

The guy was saying, “You’re welcome,” as Leonard’s taillights were winking out of the parking lot.

Of socializing and surges

Monday is Labor Day, the holiday that celebrates the people who work for a living. The people who do the hard work, under often difficult conditions, without making a big deal about it.

That’s even more so in 2020, with a pandemic upon the land.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading expert in how infectious diseases work, told Associated Press that this year’s holiday could write a story that no one will want to read – if people aren’t careful.

Every cookout, every outing at the lake, every hop to your favorite bar (if it’s still open) carries a potentially lethal invitation to COVID-19, he said.

“I look upon the Labor Day weekend really as a critical point,” he said.

“Are we going to go in the right direction and continue the momentum downward, or are we going to have to step back a bit as we start another surge?”

If you’re caught traveling on the wrong direction of the coronavirus, you just might make an acquaintance with Jessica Bragg.

Family business (and movie night)

At 9:15 a.m. last Friday, Bragg was well into her workday on 8 Southeast at J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital.

She’s a nurse on the ward that houses coronavirus patients, and some days, she said, are better than others.

Early on in the pandemic, employee morale would wax and wane, like a fever spike.

Bragg and her co-workers always pushed though, because of the patients.

While several COVID patients in the area get to recover from home, others require hospital stays. At J.W. Ruby, that’s 8 Southeast.

Some of the newly admitted are worried, she said, just because. Others are philosophical, and some are, well, just plain ill.

“With our COVID patients, it takes a just a little longer to gown-up with the PPE [personal protective equipment], but we still interact with them the same as we would with any other patient. I think they’re reassured by that.”

Bragg, get an antidote for the work rigors every time she walks into her house at the end of her shift.

Thank her husband and 6-year-daughter for that, she said.

“They really keep me going.”

When you’re a hardworking medical professional clocking in during COVID-19, you might need a movie night every once in a while.

Mon Health hosted a socially distanced one at Mylan Park on Saturday night, with the help the Building and Construction Trades Council of North Central West Virginia.

Area first responders came out for a free showing of the new Disney release, “Onward.”

“We’re able to host a fun night for families while also showing appreciation for our local heroes,” Mon Health System president and CEO David Goldberg said.

‘I needed to do my job, too’

Leonard, meanwhile, just said he appreciates all the technicians in his lab, which is working around the clock.

He had spent about five hours on the phone trying to relocate a syringe component that malfunctioned and the RNA extraction machine that tests for the coronavirus to seize up.

The replacement part could be shipped out, but that might take three days. The last couldn’t wait, as it was one of only two facilities in the state doing testing then.

A part was located at a plant division in Ann Arbor, Mich., but that was still too much geography.

The lab manager was able to broker at deal, where a courier could deliver it another division in northeastern Ohio. Akron.

“Walking to my car right now,” he said. Actually, it was more of a sprint.

Three hours up, three hour back, no stops for coffee. Or anything else.

“Our lab people were going around the clock,” he said, “and I needed to do my job, too.”

He tires squeaked in the near-empty parking lot of the hospital in Morgantown.

By 6 a.m., when the sun was coming up, the lab was back online, and Leonard, in the background, was doing a victory dance, albeit a road-weary one.

Checkered flag.