An Alameda Health System worker donning protective equipment that's been used to care for patients with COVID-19. Credit: Courtesy of Alameda Health System

Anh Ho, an EKG technician at the Wilma Chan Highland Hospital Campus in East Oakland, has not forgotten what it felt like to contract COVID-19 for the first time. She was at work when she began feeling overwhelmed by the virus. “I remember my whole body was aching. It felt like something biting your bones,” Ho said in a video interview with Alameda Health System staff. One of her first thoughts was for the safety of her colleagues. “I said, ‘I’m not worried if I’m sick or not, I’m worried about the co-workers.’”

Ho’s experience, along with other AHS staff, is documented in the COVID-19 Memory Archive, a new oral history project curated by the AHS public affairs and community engagement team.

The archive is a collection of short videos, audio recordings, and photo essays that provide an intimate glimpse into what physicians, nurses, administrators, telephone operators, chaplains, and others frontline workers across the county’s public health care system went through during some of the hardest days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The global spread of COVID-19 in early 2020 resulted in six Bay Area counties declaring a shelter-in-place order in March. California’s COVID state of emergency, which started that same month, officially ended this past February.

The release of the archive coincides with the end of the federal COVID public health emergency order. The pandemic remains ongoing, but the development of vaccines, therapeutic drugs, and other tools, has helped to reduce the harm the virus is able to do.

Eleanor Ajala, the media and communications manager for AHS, led the archive project alongside a team of five who collected memories and designed the archive’s webpage. According to Ajala, the archive was born out of a desire to set the record straight about what health care workers experienced. “There was a mix of disinformation and good information at the national level on the news, but while that was going on, there were staff here who were risking their lives to save their community, and I wanted to make sure their voices were recorded.”

Staff who risked their lives to try and save others include Dr. Ajeet Singh, a resident AHS physician. In an audio interview, Singh talked about losing a patient to COVID. 

“Here at the ICU in Highland Hospital, there was a patient that I was taking care of for two weeks straight,” Singh recalled. The young man was relatively healthy but the virus attacked his respiratory system so aggressively that he was kept on ventilators to breathe. “After each new challenge arose, we would resolve that challenge to get him on a path of recovery, but then something else would happen,” said Singh.

Eventually, Singh and his colleagues felt they had done all they could. “It was in this time working with him that I witnessed the incredible toll that COVID-19 could have on not just the lungs but the entire body,” Singh said. “That gentleman passed, and in hindsight, even with the knowledge we have now, there’s nothing we could have done. Even today as I walk past that room in the ICU, I think of him.”

AHS CEO James Jackson said he wants the memory archive to become a resource for the public, helping people understand what frontline workers went through. 

“We wanted to capture their firsthand memories of COVID-19,” said Jackson. “We didn’t want them to be lost to history.”

The early days of the pandemic were a tumultuous time for the Alameda Health System also because its workers went on strike. Staff said at the time that they felt the hospital system’s leaders weren’t giving them the resources they needed to stay safe and treat patients. And these disagreements haven’t entirely been resolved. Most recently, one of AHS’s unions, CIR SEIU, which represents resident physicians, has called for a vote on whether to authorize a strike after months of negotiations.

Jackson said he believes the organization has moved towards restoring trust with staff. 

“We went on a campaign of transparency and being very open about what actions we were taking and why we were taking them,” Jackson said. “I believe in giving people a voice and making sure that the frontline folks really understand what we’re doing and have input into what we’re doing. That’s what we’ve done for the past two and a half years.”

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Oaklandside, he spent two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the local news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, is on The Oaklandside team through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.