It had been less than three months since Tran Nguyen’s first day at the SFPUC when the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the Bay Area. Nguyen, SFPUC Internal Communications Specialist, has always seen her professional journey as one with mission and purpose. When the shelter-in-place order went into effect, Nguyen wondered if her years of experience in healthcare and employee communications would be needed in San Francisco’s response to the public health crisis.
Nguyen came to the SFPUC with over 15 years of healthcare communications experience, with almost a decade working for Sutter Health in physician organizations and hospitals, and two years with the San Francisco Department of Public Health (DPH). When asked how she found herself in healthcare and employee communications, Tran shared those disciplines found her. She was previously in the tech industry until the bubble burst in the early 2000’s until being laid off. Nguyen’s mother encouraged her to start fresh, take time off to recalibrate, and to discover her passion for the next phase in life.
After a year off, Nguyen began her job search and found that most recruiters that contacted her were in the healthcare industry looking for previous tech employees. From there, Nguyen began consulting at hospitals, building business strategies and opportunities, and the rest was history.
“There is a big difference between healthcare and utilities, but there are also similarities in that both industries provide 24/7 essential services,” she said. “In healthcare and at the SFPUC, I support teams that provide services critical for overall public health. The best part about working here is learning something new every day.”
Since early March, Nguyen has been supporting the SFPUC’s and San Francisco’s response to COVID-19. She was the public information office (PIO) during the first few days of the SFPUC’s department operations center (DOC) activation. At the time, employees were still reporting to work at the office and getting processes set up. “Then suddenly, the shelter-in-place order came into effect. I stayed on until the following Monday to help onboard the next PIO,” she said. Nguyen has since been in an ongoing PIO support role and building out the SFPUC’s COVID-19 intranet pages on Currents to communicate with employees about the changing situation—in fact, since the shelter-in-place, SFPUC has created and uploaded more than 175 documents to the COVID-19 intranet pages.
Recently, Nguyen was activated as a disaster service worker (DSW) to serve as the PIO at Laguna Honda, one of the largest skilled nursing and rehabilitation centers in the country, owned and operated by the San Francisco Department of Public Health (DPH). Although she was able to serve in that role remotely from home, Nguyen shared she felt very close to being on the front lines, working 15 days straight for 10 hours a day. “I have so much respect for healthcare workers who are putting others before themselves. Laguna Honda is in constant firefighting mode and they have done an amazing job protecting their residents and staff,” said Nguyen.
As Laguna Honda’s PIO, Nguyen was responsible for creating communications plans, working with clinicians to develop safety protocols, providing daily updates to staff, residents and family members, and responding to media inquiries. “My first Saturday on call resulted in a nine-hour work day. Skilled nursing facilities (SNF) have come under fire as possible COVID-19 hot spots. Laguna Honda has partnered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to slow the spread of COVID-19 within their community of 700+ residents and 1,500+ employees. Through this partnership, they have developed a best practice toolkit to be shared with other SNFs. As PIO, I helped write the communications section and provided samples of the communications we created.”
Nguyen shared that this pandemic has created a different vision for herself in public service. It wasn’t until the global pandemic continued to grow where she got her a-ha moment. “Public service use to mean I worked for the City. But the pandemic has really shown me that being in public service is so much more. I am so grateful and impressed by the thousands of City employees who are serving the public and making sure essential services are available to the community. Many of my coworkers and friends from other City agencies are getting deployed as disaster service workers (DSWs), often doing work that is unfamiliar to them. They go, not because they are told to do so, but because they want to help,” she said. “I am proud to be a part of an amazing group of public service workers.”
For Nguyen, one of the biggest challenges has been not seeing her family. “Being indoors and not going out is not a problem during the week—thanks to my work schedule. The hardest part is actually not being able to be near my family. I have not seen my family members for more than two months,” she shared. “I used to see them at least every Sunday. I have a two-year-old nephew that I’m afraid will forget me. We video chat, but it’s not the same as being there with him.”
Nguyen is considered part of the vulnerable population with underlying medical issues. Although she used to be more active and hike often, she has not left her house more than ten times since March 17. “I’m grateful that I have a home that’s safe and warm, and I have food and toilet paper. I’m not struggling,” she said. However, Nguyen shared that a family member in London was tested positive for COVID-19 and has been sick since late March. “Just a week ago, she was on her sixth week of being sick. Her 13 year old son also was COVID-19 positive, but fortunately recovered quickly, and her husband and other son have not gotten sick.”
Nguyen has been appreciative for being able to connect with family members, even though their interactions have been completely virtual. “My cousin, an operating room nurse manager stationed at US Naval Hospital Yokosuka, Japan posted on chat that her hospital was short on PPE. My younger sister reached out to a local Bay Area organization, and amazingly, the organization is now working with the Navy to get face shields shipped to Japan.”
“It’s sobering to think of the lasting impact COVID-19 will have on public health, the economy and how we will be able to socially interact. I’m also very concerned that Asian Americans, specifically Chinese Americans will be negatively targeted. Sadly there has been backlash against Asian Americans for COVID-19. As Asian Americans, we have an opportunity to do good work and remind people that we are part of the foundation of this City and the Bay Area and speak up against bigotry,” she shared.
“I’m so proud of the City’s response to COVID-19 and of my fellow city colleagues. San Francisco early on has been proactive in slowing the spread of COVID-19 and taking a stance against anti-Chinese/Asian discrimination. Twenty to thirty years down the road, I can say that I really helped and served my City.”