At-risk janitors, housekeepers, other non-clinical hospital staffers ‘terrified’ about coronavirus
If anyone has found an effective means to tamp down the sadness and fury generated by the failure to provide doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers with proper protection as they try to save the lives of people afflicted with COVID-19, speak up, please. Like so many others who don’t work in hospitals but who have family who do, I’m reluctantly glued to coverage of this particular deadly travesty, which has some usually calm media people of prominence ferociously glaring and even shouting on camera about the situation.
It’s not “fake news” as the maliciously incompetent squatter in the White House continues to say. Even when the details of this atrocity are backed up by an inspector general’s report and the social media and TV testimony of healthcare professionals risking their and their families’ lives in back-to-back 12-hour shifts or worse, Trump and certain of his minions continue to downplay what’s happened and continues to happen. One more reason they ought to be frog-marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to a place where they can personally dig some of the graves they made inevitable with their delay and deceit. As Hailey Branson-Potts at the Los Angeles Times reports, healthcare professionals aren’t the only hospital staffers who face the prospect of having their bodies invaded by the novel coronavirus.
While their risk is certainly less than for doctors and nurses who have frequent direct contact with infected patients, housekeepers, janitors, administrators, food-service workers, technicians, clerks, and other non-medical staff are not immune to the disease. And, as one of them said, they are “terrified.” A doctor who requested anonymity expressed concern for these staffers, “There’s a huge number of people who are putting themselves at risk, and they didn’t sign up for it the way nurses and doctors did.” Across the country, they have had a hard time getting protective gear.
In an email to the Times, Steven Wallace, a professor in the community health sciences department at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, wrote that nonclinical hospital staffers “likely face similar to higher risks as others who still have to report to work. Almost everyone in a hospital comes into contact with someone who has patient contact.” No surprise, these jobs are disproportionately undertaken by women and people of color.
As we have been learning this week, COVID-19 is taking the lives of black people, Latinos, and Native Americans at a far higher rate than of whites. This state of affairs is no surprise to advocates and their allies who have for decades been pointing out the underlying healthcare disparities that are part of the nation’s long history of failing people of color when it comes to the economy, the environment, education, reproductive care, and the grotesquely out-of-wack criminal justice system.
According to 30-year-old Andre Ross, a shop steward for Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West who works as an $18.31-an-hour janitor at Southern California Hospital at Hollywood, in the early days of the spread of the virus, some housekeepers tried to use protective masks but were informed that these were reserved for doctors and nurses. One of them, a housekeeper in her 70s who has worked at the hospital for many years, brought a mask from home and used it day after day. “They’re terrified,” Ross told the Times. “They’re upset. They feel like they’re being treated differently.” Many won’t speak up because they fear administrative retaliation.
Ross himself goes home every day from work, sticks his scrubs in a bag, puts everything in the washing machine, then showers and disinfects his bathroom. He worries about getting the disease for the obvious reason but also because finances are tight—as they are for low-wage workers in general—and he feels he can’t afford to take a day off. Initially, he didn’t get a mask. Now, the only time he wears full protective gear is when he disinfects a COVID-19 patient’s room. Ross and other interviewees made clear they that are anxious and stressed by the pandemic and their part in keeping down the death toll.
This is not a matter of mere anecdotes. A Singapore study of both medical and non-medical staff published this week in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that “nonmedical health care personnel are at highest risk for psychological distress during the COVID-19 outbreak.”
At the very least, along with medical staffers, these nonmedical workers ought to be getting hazard pay. They should now, and in any future similar circumstances, have full access to protective gear commensurate with the risks they are taking. It wouldn’t hurt for the nation to focus on getting rid of all those disparities that contribute to making their lives so rough.
(Crossposted with DailyKos.)