A story of hope and heartbreak in Nashville

The pandemic has forced them to dream apart.

She was a brilliant epidemiologist and nurse who moved from Minnesota to Nashville to start a coronavirus-inspired business. He was a hip graphic designer from Los Angeles.

When Jade Van Kley was in doubt about her jump to Nashville, Aaron Alvarez jumped on a Zoom call to coax her out and reassure her that she had made the right decision.

“I was like, will people ever need what I’m here to do?” said Van Kley. “Aaron said they would.”

The friends dreamed of working together to help the music industry through the pandemic.

They never had the chance to meet in person.

Looking back, Van Kley said Alvarez was right. Today, his business is thriving. She works with artists like Jack White and Jason Isbell, helping by creating health plans for touring shows and testing them and their roadies for COVID-19.

As Tennessee approaches the second anniversary of the pandemic, Van Kley, 31, is like so many others who have seen their lives turned sometimes tragically and sometimes triumphantly upside down by COVID-19.

The first case of COVID-19 in Tennessee was confirmed on March 5, 2020 by the Tennessee Department of Health. In two years, Tennesseans have weathered a deluge of changes — including emergency declarations, school closures, event cancellations, lockdowns, gathering restrictions, mask mandates and more.

As of Feb. 26, TDH data showed 24,483 Tennesseans had died of COVID-19. More than 2 million people had contracted the virus since the first case was recorded. State data also showed about 53% of Tennesseans had been fully vaccinated as of March 1.

Tennessee’s vaccinations continue to lag behind the 65% national rate reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as of March 1.

After two years of the pandemic, Dr. William Schaffner, a renowned infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, expressed concern about the fatigue that has set in among healthcare workers, leaders, health experts public and citizens.

“Every time we thought we were starting to repair, bang! It hit us harder,” Schaffner said. “It’s like hitting a mole. It is very difficult for people to maintain. »

An idea that prompted to move to Nashville

In the years leading up to the pandemic, Van Kley was a medical drifter. She had a degree in molecular biology and another in nursing. She worked in a psychiatric hospital and Planned Parenthood.

She also worked as an epidemiologist before anyone knew what that was.

She bounced around the Great Plains and the Midwest, from South Dakota to Nebraska to St. Paul, Minnesota, from job to job in the medical field.

When the first coronavirus cases hit the United States, she started working for a COVID-19 hotline and took jobs as a contact tracer, data collector and death investigator.

In March 2020, as the world was closing in, Van Kley saw a tweet from guitarist John Calvin Abney, who played in John Moreland’s band. The tweet indicated that the band were leaving for a tour amid fear and panic.

The tweet asked what the group should do.

Here’s the thing about Van Kley: Away from medical circles, she’s a music freak. Her very first gig was Britney Spears at age eight. She loves Allison Russell. And she’s a huge White Stripes fan.

When she saw this tweet, Van Kley didn’t hesitate. She looked at John Moreland’s tour dates, cities they would visit, infection rates and CDC guidelines. She hatched a plan for a group she didn’t know.

Their tour was canceled the following day. His research was useless.

But an idea was born.

Van Kley called herself a “background nurse”, inspired by a row of amplifiers set up at the back of the stage during a musical performance. She launched a website called BacklineNurse.com and featured Alvarez’s artwork depicting her work behind the scenes at shows.

She had developed an online friendship with Alvarez in Los Angeles. When she told him the idea, he was sold – even more than she was. He quickly collected works of art for his burgeoning business.

“He was adamant,” Van Kley said with a smile. “He was so positive, so encouraging.”

From pandemic to endemic

Schaffner said understanding the virus early in the pandemic was like looking at a blank textbook.

“Every time we learned more, the virus looked more and more nasty,” he said.

Tennessee has made national headlines again and again during the pandemic, often for sinister reasons. More than once, the state has led the nation in new infection rates. A group of angry parents threatening healthcare workers outside a school board amid heated debates over masks has also drawn national attention. Last year, a set of state laws passed overnight dramatically restricted how local leaders and public health officials could mitigate the virus.

After several outbreaks and just as people were learning how to fight COVID-19, the delta variant caused another wave of infection. As the delta waned, there was another punch.

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The omicron variant drove the latest push to record heights across Tennessee and around the world. As the variant now loosens its grip, Schaffner said he cautiously hopes the United States will transition from pandemic to endemic.

“When you’re in an endemic phase, you kind of have a truce with the virus,” he said. “It’s not going away, but we’ve pushed it to such a low level that if we keep our guard up, we can live almost normally with this virus and minimize its negative impact.”

Devastating news

In September 2020, Van Kley got into her Subaru Legacy with her cat, Luna, and headed to Nashville.

“I can’t even believe I did it,” she said.

She moved into an apartment in East Nashville and she bought a mobile machine that would do PCR coronavirus tests.

In December 2020, she received a phone call from Alvarez’s sister.

He had died of COVID-19.

All his work to save people from coronavirus could not save one of his best friends.

“I didn’t know Aaron was sick until he passed,” Van Kley said through tears. “I was devastated.”

Alvarez wasn’t around when his business started to take off.

First, she was hired by a Canadian film company to work on a plan to keep their film set safe.

Then she goes on tour with Jason Isbell. Then she started working with Jack White’s Third Man Records. She was so impressed with Isbell and White and how they valued the safety of their crews.

“I’m so grateful to be able to work with two musicians who care about the people around them,” she said.

This spring and summer, she’s working with another big star, but she can’t divulge any details yet.

“I so wish I could call Aaron and tell him,” she said.

Any good news?

Schaffner hopes the virus will become endemic in late March or early April. But he warned that another push or a new variant could change that. Still, if new infections, test positivity rates, hospitalizations and deaths continue to drop, Schaffner hopes a semblance of normalcy will return soon.

“There is no magic number,” Schaffner said. “It’s a matter of judgement.”

In his eyes, it’s better to play it safe — a view he and other infectious disease and public health experts share.

“We’ve seen this movie before,” he said. “Better to wear your mask a month too long than to take it off a month too soon.”

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Schaffner said there was good news after two years of COVID-19. He said medical professionals, drugmakers, researchers, politicians and others have banded together to research and fight the virus like never before.

“Never before in human history has so much information been gathered so quickly about a new germ,” Schaffner said. “Never before has it been applied to people to ward off infection, diagnose it more quickly and more accurately, and treat it better. The sharing of information that has happened literally around the world has been eye-opening. . It is really encouraging.

Changing the narrative from sadness to resolution

Van Kley said the pandemic and the loss of her friend forced her to turn her devastation into determination.

When her life gets tough, she thinks of Alvarez.

“Everything will be fine,” she said. “People are exhausted by information that is in conflict and contradicts each other. People have lost faith in public institutions. I want this to end as soon as possible.

“Hopefully people will stay on top of their vaccinations.”

Contact Keith Sharon at 615-406-1594 or [email protected] or on Twitter @KeithSharonTN.

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