City’s public health workers shift gears to battle pandemic, disinformation

Charlayne Guy investigated food poisoning outbreaks. Deeanna Mendoza inspected restaurants and schools, among other places. Victoria Romero worked with HIV clinics. Now all three AFSCME members are squarely focused on COVID-19.

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This organized labor profile was underwritten by AFSCME Council 31.

While many people haven’t been to their offices in months because of the coronavirus pandemic, working from home is not an option for many in the Chicago Department of Public Health.

Yet, for Deeana Mendoza, Victoria Romero and Charlayne Guy, CDPH employees and members of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 31, their jobs have changed even more because of the pandemic than those who are currently working from home.


Charlayne Guy, MPPA, a communicable disease investigator, takes a phone call.

Brian Ernst/Sun-Times

“This year stands out from my whole 31 years of employment. We’ve never seen anything like this,” said Guy, 59, who lives in East Garfield Park.

Guy, a communicable disease control investigator who has worked in several areas, saw her job focus change from food protection to communicable disease in May to help with contact tracing. Now, instead of looking into food poisoning complaints and assigning them to sanitarians to investigate, she is interviewing people who test positive with COVID-19.


Vicki Romero, a public health administrator with CDPH, makes a phone call.

Brian Ernst/Sun-Times

Like Guy, Vicki Romero’s job focus has changed because of the pandemic. Romero, a public health administrator who is 49 and lives in Pilsen, worked for the HIV/STI division as a program monitor overseeing and supporting the private agencies that the CDPH funds to provide supportive services for people living with HIV. 

When the first COVID-19 cases were identified in March at Vaughn Occupational High School on the Northwest Side, Romero got a call saying she was needed as a bilingual staff person to help with outreach to Spanish-speaking families. She has been working on the CDPH COVID hotline as a case investigator and contact tracer ever since. 

For sanitarian Deeana Mendoza, whose job it is to inspect restaurants, nursing homes, daycare centers, public schools, hospitals and food trucks — the pandemic has also changed her focus. And just like the city’s other 27 sanitarians who are responsible for inspecting 10,000 establishments every year, priority is now being given to COVID-19-related complaints.

“Before COVID, we’d have 1-2 complaints to inspect a week. Once COVID hit, complaints started coming in a lot more than that, regarding employees not wearing masks, restaurants not promoting social distancing, so we have to address those, too,” said Mendoza, who is 38 and from the Southeast Side.

And although she cannot work from home, Mendoza said AFSCME has fought to ensure they can do their jobs safely, especially at COVID danger spots like nursing homes.


Charlayne Guy, Deeana Mendoza and Victoria Romero, CDPH employees and members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Brian Ernst & Brian Rich/Sun-Times

“Fortunately, because of our union, we are able to do walk-throughs now. Before we would have to stay on site while doing the report and issuing citations. Now, fortunately, we are able to walk through, take notes, and then go to a secure, non-public place to write out the reports. So onsite time and exposure is a lot less,” Mendoza said.

All three women said their biggest challenge has been the spread of misinformation, with Romero saying the Internet is both good and bad.

“It does make it harder to control the facts that are out there, but then also social media can be used as a tool to spread awareness and to spread the facts,” Romero said.

She also said many people she calls have a mistrust of the government.

“People are skeptical of government agencies calling them and asking them for their personal information. I understand that and I respect it,” Romero said. “But once they hear the tone of our voice and the reason why we are calling, that opens them up to a completely different world of resources and services that we can help with. “

Guy, whose own nephew was hospitalized for 46 days with coronavirus, said misinformation and mistrust of the government is also something she has to overcome on a daily basis.

“They will ask, ‘How did you get my information?’ And I have an answer for everything they ask me. I’ve heard them all. Some will just say, “No,’ but I’m persistent. I’ll say, ‘If you don’t want to do the interview, let me just ask you this.’ And then, before they know it I have all the information.”

For Romero, turning someone from skeptic to thankful patient is the most rewarding part of her job.

“It is challenging to listen to people’s emotions, listen to people’s fear, sometimes to hear the misinformation that they and their families believe. Those are the challenging calls but by the end of that, those are the most satisfying calls at all.”

All three AFSCME members said education is the key to defeating the virus, even if a vaccine eventually comes out.

“Every single patient we work with is an opportunity to get information and to share information. I view each call as an opportunity to give information and to also get information,” Romero said.

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