The Unsung heroes of Covid-19 frontlines

Since early march when the pandemic started spreading, doctors and nurses received a well deserved support and recognition for their sacrifices. Yet, a key-link in the chain of this battle is rarely spoken of. Hospital cleaners who work relentlessly to keep rooms clean and sanitized were forgotten by the public and often by the administration. CultureXchange interrogated Heather, a 32-year-old hospital cleaner from Minneapolis, Minnesota.

 » Sometimes I feel invisible » says Heather a cleaner from an ICU unit. © Shutterstock

CultureXchange: Hello Heather, can you present yourself and your job? What does your work consist of?

« Hi, my official job title is environmental service aide (EVS) at a hospital. I work on COVID-19 ICU (Intensive Care Unit). These rooms are called Full Barriers, meaning the door is closed at all times and there is a ventilation unit built into the room. We always have to wear clear glasses/google or face shield and gowns. When going to a new room, we must sanitaze the PPE (personal protective equipment) before entering another room. During the day I sanitize hospital equipment, nurse’s stations, breaks rooms and stock cleaning supplies in patient rooms. Also when a patient discharges we are required to clean the room and bring in a UV (UV Room Disinfection Devices) light to help further with COVID disinfection. Every day, patients thoroughly get their rooms disinfected, especially in high-touch areas such as doorknobs, light switches, bed handrails, remotes. In order to meet the demands of admitting and discharging patients daily, EVS team members must quickly and effectively conduct discharge cleanings, or cleanings that keep rooms available for new patients. The goal is to flip a discharged patient’s room within one hour to allow minimal time between new admissions. This involves removing all objects in the room, cleaning lighting and air duct surfaces in the ceiling, and cleaning everything downward to the floor to ensure a sterile environment for the next operation. All items removed from the room are disinfected and sanitized thoroughly before being brought back in. Basically this is my job. »

CultureXchange2: How was your life/routine impacted during the crisis?

« What changed in my work? I have mixed feelings, because I was going througha period of unemployment in 2019 and I got this new job close to home. I was happy with this job, however the pandemic hit the country around 3 or 4 months after I started working. The hardest was when during the first wave of the pandemic I was not able to see friends and especially my family. I missed seeing my mother, but I appreciated having co-workers that I saw regularly. Who became almost a surrogate family in these stressful times. »

CultureXchange3: What does it mean to work on the floor where COVID-19 patients are resting?

« Pandemic caused a drain on staffing, by illness and fear many people just quit their job. All the education in the world could not help those that refused to work due to fear of being infected themselves or infecting their families. We were shortstaffed and received more hours of work to fill the shortage of staff. Another problem was the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) or PAPR air-purifying respirator in the beginning of the crisis. The result of that was that out of fear of contamination, we refused to go in the rooms where the COVID-19 patients were recovering. The first few months were really stressful for everyone. »

CultureXchange4: What did you feel when you understood that you were at the frontline of the coronavirus crisis?

« Well waste and sanitation workers already faced dire working conditions before the pandemic. After it hit we were even more at risk of debilitating infections, injuries, social stigma and even death. A woman from the hospital staff fell to Covid which greatly affected us all. It’s now during the pandemic, that we need cleaner services the most. We continue carrying out our duties whatever the risk may be. Some of us stayed because of civic duty and they thought it was the right thing to do, others because of the fear of losing daily income or their job altogether. »

CultureXchange5: Did you partake in patient care?

 « I communicate with nurses and other staff to help the day go smoothly and be aware of the patient’s needs and expectations.However most of the time we are being ignored. »

CultureXchange6: Should hospital cleaners get more recognition for their work during the COVID-19 crisis?

« YES. As I said we are ignored by the staff and especially doctors. Sometimes I feel invisible even if I am on the frontline of this crisis. We have to also endure a lot of stigma because of our prefession people look down on us. It’s a low paying job for all the work that we do. The hospital union, wants to negotiate a pay rise for us (COVID pay) since we are essential workers, but as far as I know it still didn’t happen. Yet cashiers working in some stores got pay rises. « 

CultureXchange7: Did your life and work situation get better now 9 months after this crisis started?

« It was stressful when the pandemic first started and we didn’t have clear information on what protections we should take against COVID. Now we have proper equipment and experience dealing with patients with COVID so now it is my new normal. We still have to check in with nurses and other staff on the floor to make sure that we don’t miss new information and stay safe. If I didn’t have the care and support of the co-workers I have around me. I think I would have been more stressed or scared of the pandemic. They became my second family when I couldn’t see my family or friends during the darkest hours of this time. I realize that the people you keep close to you, especially during hard times makes a huge difference on how you handle the situation. I just feel proud of it, because I really care for others, especially now when we all need it the most. »

Interview conducted by R. Emil

Cover photo: © ALEX HOGAN/STAT

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