April 27, 2020

As they do every afternoon at 3:30, the team of nurses and epidemiologists at Communicable Disease Services met to discuss their cases. 

Nurse Anh Tran listed off the local outbreaks of COVID-19, sharing new cases and detailing the deaths. By mid-April, case counts in Multnomah County were in the hundreds and still rising, as the team discussed infection controls, staffing needs and requests for personal protective equipment.

Before COVID-19, the team talked about measles, tuberculosis and whooping cough. But that rarely happens these days.   

Now, case investigators spend long days on the phone with residents who have COVID-19, and their close contacts, and they rarely have a chance to step away. When they go home, they have their own ways to unwind. Meredith Jones does yoga. Joan Coleman snuggles with her dog. Marta Fisher runs. 

They also find occasional moments at work to cope with stress, connect with colleagues and take a deep breath.

They are slowly assembling a 1,000-piece Portland puzzle, following pandemic rules for handling the pieces (sanitize before touching, and then again after). They throw little plastic airplanes usually reserved as bribes for children who need their shots. And they stock a bowl of Halloween-size Hershey chocolate bars for a rapid boost of endorphins.

But on a recent Tuesday, they found one more way to boost their happy hormones — Hyacinth the therapy dog. 

June Vining, of the local Trauma Intervention Program, stopped by with the happy golden retriever, who promptly wagged her way over to disease detective Anne Schwindt and then flopped onto her back.

Hyacinth the golden retriever stops by with owner June Vining, of the local Trauma Intervention Program, to cheer on county staff.

After Anne stepped back, Kevin Jian walked over and Hyacinth stretched out for another pair of hands. Then Joan stepped in as Taylor Pinsent snapped an iPhone pic.

It was Hyacinth’s second visit to Multnomah County’s Emergency Operations Center, where staff from across departments work together with other government and nonprofit partners to respond to the local outbreak of COVID-19.

“The whole time you’re in an emergency operations center, or in a shelter or working on the incident, you’re thinking about the people you’re trying to serve and hoping you’re not letting them down,” said Alice Busch, one of the two unified commanders for the County’s response. “It’s a lot of pressure.”

She and other managers encourage staff and volunteers to take breaks. They provide staff with hot lunches and healthy snacks, and make sure that every day ends with a moment to focus on what went well and to offer praise. But there’s something about a dog that no human cheerleader can offer.

“When Hyacinth shows up, it’s all about Hyacinth and that’s a good break,” Busch said. “The work that Hyacinth is doing gives us all a brain break and fills our buckets.”