Gathering in Isolation: VT Woman Brings Together People & Information

Before COVID-19 changed everyone’s lives, Tammy Wells spent her days at home, caring for her two young grandchildren while her son was at work.

Tammy Wells

A little over two weeks after the first case of novel coronavirus was reported in Vermont – even after a dramatic rise in cases locally, nationally, and globally, not to mention the dramatic fallout in their wake – Tammy, a Lamoille County native, suggests that her routine remains largely the same.

“Life for me really hasn’t changed too much,” she said Tuesday, March 24, from the home she shares with her son and his two kids. “If anything, with the grandkids, having their father home now after being laid off, it’s actually made it easier for me physically.”

Over the past five years, Tammy suffered a series of setbacks that would have made some people just give up.

It started with a broken foot. Then there was a breast cancer diagnosis. After that, her hips went to hell on her. As many of us adjust to day-to-day life in our homes, it’s a reality Tammy has grown used to.

“But I was a caregiver for special needs people before that happened,” she said. “I had people I cared for at home. Then I was doing respite care until that got to be too much.”

Tammy had an appointment coming up that would literally put her back on her feet and able to get around. Then COVID-19 hit.

“I was supposed to have hip replacement surgery April 9,” she said. “Then it was cancelled. I don’t know when I’ll get that now.”

Despite that setback, Tammy saw a chance to help people through tough times.

She was spending time on Facebook, watching posts related to the pandemic appear from various sources. Worried about the accuracy of some of those posts, Tammy took action.

“I’ve always had concerns about false news,” she said. “I decided to start posting things that were fact-checked and verified. I made this group and started with family and friends. I meant it to be small. Then they shared it with their own family and friends and others. Then it blew up and went viral.”

“Going viral” is a loaded phrase these days, but for Tammy’s group – The 802 Stay Safe and Strong Updates – it’s an apt description; an ironic demonstration of how quickly both an act of supportive kindness and a deadly illness can spread so quickly.

The 802 Stay Safe and Strong Updates is the Facebook group Vermonters (and others) have flocked to over the past couple of weeks to get and share information about everything from school  and business closures to updates from Gov. Phil Scott to words of inspiration and hope. In fact, as of Tuesday morning, there were some 14,000 group members.

Like so much in this new world we live in, the growth happened quickly, and it’s been a bit much at times.

“This morning it was getting overwhelming,” Tammy said. “I almost said to hell with it. Most people are good, but there are those who like to make trouble. There are guidelines for people to follow, but some just don’t bother, I guess. One thing I do is, I turn off comments after something has been answered. That way the important information gets out there and isn’t lost. But some people don’t like that and try to make it a big deal.”

Fortunately, Tammy keeps the positivity of others top of mind, and she is pressing on with her work.

“I’ve met a lot of people online who are so nice and so helpful and appreciative,” she said.

This is easily seen after just a little scrolling through the The 802 Stay Safe and Strong Updates page. Comments of support and admiration abound.

“I’d like to give a shout out to Tammy M Wells … I can only imagine when you started this group you didn’t think in a million years it would grow so fast and so big,” one comment reads. It continues in part, “…Thank you Tammy. You are doing a good job and I believe the majority of ppl really appreciate your efforts.”

“I want to say thank you Tammy for starting this group these groups are vital during a time like this the information here is very useful as I do a lot of ground work right now working with people once more I just want to say thank you!” another reads.

Aside from the vital updates, information, and advice shared on The 802 Stay Safe and Strong Updates, Tammy also makes room in the group for laughter. She posts the occasional meme, as well as videos of folks trying to bring a little light into dark times.

“I feel that you’ve gotta laugh a little, or you go crazy,” Tammy said.

However, there are limits to what she will post on the page, leaving important medical information in the hands of the experts.

“I don’t allow any info about the virus itself,” she said. “I leave that for the powers that be, the CDC and others like that.

Asked if she had recommendations for group members who want to post on her Facebook page, she suggested, “It would help if (the information) was fact-checked, which is inducive to helping … I try to verify everything before it gets posted, but it helps if others do it first.”

Heading into days that are uncertain and unsettling, Tammy takes solace in the work she has created for herself, as well as the support she is bringing to others.

“I’ve met a lot of people online who are so nice and so helpful and appreciative. If nothing else, I will come out of this thing with new friends,” she said. “It swells my heart to know that even though I can’t get out, I can do something for Vermont.”

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