While nurses and physicians are working the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic, there are those behind the scenes who are also playing a major role.
At Riverside Doctors Hospital Williamsburg and Sentara CarePlex in Hampton, members of the environmental services staff are working diligently to clean and disinfect the facility to keep patients and staff safe. But while their work provides protection from the virus, oftentimes the public isn’t aware of their significance.
“When you think about a medical condition, you think of a nurse or physician taking care of you,” said Adria Vanhoozier, president of Riverside Doctors Hospital. “However, there are a lot of people supporting those nurses and physicians so they can adequately do their job.”
Both medical facilities said they’ve taken steps to protect those support staff such as in the environmental services department. This means supplying them with the proper PPE and following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding the wait time in between when a coronavirus positive patient leaves a room and when an employee can come in to clean the room, Vanhoozier said.
As those employees are going into the heart of the pandemic, they’re making it safe not just for patients but for medical staff who are performing life-saving services. But as many people find ways to recognize frontline workers in the community, support staff can often be forgotten.
“I think the perception is that especially if you’re not involved in health care directly, you’re not on the frontline,” said Karl Betha, manager of environmental services at Sentara CarePlex. “But those involved know what it takes to make this work and the EVS staff might not get public recognition, but they’re getting it from within because we’re a team.”
Reicki Farrar, an environmental services technician with Sentara CarePlex, said the protocol and procedures for the department haven’t changed but their work is still just as significant to the operations of the hospital.
“I deeply believe we play a major role, just as the doctors and nurses do,” he said. “We are keeping people safe by disinfecting and cleaning.”
He said going into an area that has housed coronavirus patients isn’t scary to him. It’s just what has to be done and he said he knows the personal protective equipment will keep him safe as it has always done.
Even though the operations in the environmental services department haven’t changed, other departments have had to adjust and found themselves more grateful than ever to the service the technicians provide, Farrar added.
Prior to the pandemic, Farrar said the work technicians do might’ve not been as widely appreciated as it is now.
“It’s certainly opened the eyes of doctors and nurses in the COVID unit,” he said. “It’s bringing light and significance to what we do.”
Urica Jones, who is also a technician with Sentara CarePlex, said she and other team members typically work eight-hour shifts but will frequently stay longer or come to work on the weekend when the department is half-staffed. She said the department and the facility as a whole works as a team, so it’s important to be there for each other during difficult times like the pandemic.
But even as technicians get less attention from the public than medical staff, Jones said she has started to notice a shift in recognition recently. When she wears her badge and goes to the grocery store, people will ask if she’s a doctor. When she tells them her actual job, they still will express their appreciation for everything she does.
“Nationally, I don’t think our work is probably [recognized] enough,” she said. “But at Sentara, I definitely feel the love.”
At both Riverside and Sentara, there have been donations of food and other items pouring in from the community. While some donors will specify which departments they want the items to go to, Vanhoozier said the facilities will still try to spread as much of the donations to each department equally.
“We have worked on recognition before” said Dale Gauding, spokesman for Sentara Healthcare. “We want to bring people forward who might not be the most visible but their work is still helpful…so we want to continue working on that internally so everyone gets fair recognition.”
Melva King, director of environmental services and transportation at Bon Secours Mary Immaculate Hospital in Newport News, said the staff has been assisting nurses and patients by wiping all areas down from elevator buttons and doorknobs to cleaning public bathrooms and debris on the floor of patients’ rooms.
“We’ve always been part of the team,” she said. “Since COVID-19, we’ve been number one.”
Most of the crew has been working at the hospital for quite some time, save for a new hire, King said.
Indeed there were health worries, but after learning more about the coronavirus, the crew had no problem doing their jobs.
Staff wears PPE and received additional training like how to safely and properly take off gowns.
The only thing different for the staff is how often they clean high touch points in the facility and their protective gear.
“We have to make sure they are covered from head to toe,” King said.
Restaurants and other food vendors have fed the hospital staff and local fire department EMTs have thanked their staff in the hospital.
“People see your uniform and they thank you,” she said.
King said she was wearing her hospital jacket and had someone thank her at the drive-thru window of a bank.
Overall the outpouring of support from the public has been amazing, King said, adding it brings tears to her eyes seeing staff working on the frontlines, even if it’s cleaning.
“It’s been an experience, it really has,” she said. “I love what I do, and the team does, too.”
“It is something that we have to do to keep people safe.”
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