If you clean hospitals for a living, nothing is different during COVID-19.

At the same time, everything feels different.

That’s what we learned after shadowing cleaning crews – known as Environmental Services at Novant Health and housekeeping by patients and families – for a story on their integral role during the coronavirus pandemic. Infection control, sanitization, and cleanliness is always top of mind in hospitals. And now, it’s more important than ever.

Although doctors and nurses have gotten much of the attention in the past month across the United States and the world, health care workers understand that every link in the chain is critical in patient care delivery.

“They are infection preventers for all facilities,” said Jamie Feinour, vice president, professional and support services at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center. “The environmental services team members are truly unsung heroes in our journey to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Nearly 70 Environmental Services workers fan out through Presbyterian Medical Center every morning to clean the hospital.

Following protocols

While most of America is on its first cup of coffee, the first shift of nearly 70 team members line a fluorescent hallway at 7 a.m. deep inside Presbyterian Medical Center.

They hold a quick socially-distanced huddle to talk through daily objectives and review survey scores on how they’re doing. While many professionals glide through one evaluation a year, health care workers on the clinical side are constantly evaluated via patient surveys. And that includes environmental services. Did they do a good job? Were they thorough? Were they attentive?

Among the environmental services team is Jessica Barrett, 33. She has a young son, Zion, (her mother chose the name from Mount Zion in the Bible) who turns 2 in late April. “She asks me every day, ‘You feel good?’ or ‘You feel different?’”

Jessica Pen
Jessica Barrett

She tries to put her mom at ease, and explains they wear masks, take other precautions, and follow a strict set of Novant Health safety protocols designed to keep patients, team members and visitors safe.

Once a patient has been discharged, the workers don extra protective gear for a vigorous “terminal clean.” The room is first misted with a deep cleaning chemical to kill any virus before the crew goes in. From there, the walls and floor are disinfected and everything is stripped, with the team sweeping through on a clockwise rotation to stay organized and make sure nothing is missed. Other layers of protection concerning ventilation and air flow also come into play.

Down the hallway, nurse Rayon Muir said he’s grateful for their hard work. “Everything they do is part of infection control,” he said. “They’re a vital part of the operation. They have a big impact on patient care.”

Sanitizer, singing and a lucky pen

Jessica Barrett just stays focused on the positive at the moment. “I love my job,” she said. “It’s a little different right now, but I get through it with the grace of God.” Before Novant Health, she cleaned rooms at a Charlotte hotel, but she now enjoys chatting up patients, hearing about their families, and said this job holds more room for promotion. In fact, many housekeepers like Barrett strike up a relationship with patients who can be there for many days. Housekeepers have been known to pray with patients when the requests come.

Hiwot Temteme
Hiwot Temteme

Her colleague, Hiwot Temteme, said they often remind themselves that patients are going through a much harder time than they are, even when a pandemic isn’t injecting extra jolts of anxiety into everyday living. They’re both sick and scared. “As a person, you don’t want anyone going through a tough time like that,” Temteme said. “We try to remember that.”

Lucky pen r
Jessica Barrett's "lucky pen."

Meanwhile, little on-the-job routines keep environmental services workers going through their days as they constantly slather hand sanitizer and strip off one pair of lavender latex gloves and replace them with another while moving from room to room. Barrett uses her fuzzy pink “lucky pen” from Walmart to log their progress while Jackie Clarke quietly sings gospel songs as she rolls through a nurses' station, emptying wastebaskets and tidying up. Behind her, computer monitor screensavers crawl with the same message, day after day: Wash your hands.

Jackie Clarke
Jackie Clarke

In 2015, Clarke moved to Charlotte from Long Beach, California, where she worked fire watch at one of the many oil refineries there. She turns 60 in August, and likes her team. “If the patients are happy, I’m happy.”

‘Help celebrate new life'

At Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center, in Winston-Salem, Esther Reid spent the last 20 years freshening up every nook and cranny of the hospital.

Esther Reid
Novant Health Environmental Services team member Esther Reid loves working on a floor where "I get to help celebrate new life entering the world."

“I do it because I love to clean and I love to take care of my patients,” she said.

Recently she was reassigned to the labor and delivery floor of the hospital, an assignment she has welcomed with open arms. “I know it is a scary time right now for folks,” she said. “But it is also wonderful to be on a floor in which I get to help celebrate new life entering the world.”

For Reid, the only thing that has changed in light of recent events is the donning of a mask while she cleans.

“My faith is what motivates me,” she said. “I’ve cleaned a lot of rooms over the years and my goal with each room is to make sure my patients feel loved and cared for while they are here.”

But there is one thing she misses — being able to hug her patients.

Janitor Cards
Patients at Novant Health often take the time to fill out "Remarkable" note cards thanking housekeepers for their work.

Novant Health Foundation has established a new fund dedicated to supporting our teams, as well as the overall response to the pandemic. Contributions will support team members and help fund testing and medication to support patient care, as well as medical supplies. To donate, click here.

Top caption: Jessica Barrett is part of "clean team" where colleagues back up each other throughout the day as they clean patient rooms.