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Hospital cleaners work through difficult times: 'They come here to fight' 

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Hospital cleaning technicians at Mount Sinai South Nassau in Oceanside work under stressful conditions as they set out to destroy and prevent the coronavirus. Credit: Damian Becker

Hospital cleaning technicians can sometimes see the absolute worst the novel coronavirus inflicts, doing an indispensable job that is now more perilous than ever.

“Working in a hospital, you either care about people” or you find something else to do, said Doran Davis, 40, of Freeport, who sterilizes rooms of virus-stricken patients at Mount Sinai South Nassau in Oceanside. 

The 115 technicians there work 24 hours a day, over three shifts, disinfecting the hospital, said hospital officials. During the peak of the outbreak, part-time and per diem employees also pitched in, working extra shifts. 

“They are warriors; they come here to fight,” said Felix Nazario, administrative director of environmental services at the hospital.

The technicians wear the same personal protective gear as doctors and nurses. “We are using the same effective EPA-approved cleaning agents as always,” Becker said. 

They rely on the buddy system, alternating roles when cleaning COVID-19 patients' rooms, with one worker inside disinfecting everything and handing gowns, sheets and the like to their colleague standing outside, who then tackles the next room. 

“Yes, we are nervous and scared, but we are the experts in this field,” Nazario said.

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Mount Sinai South Nassau usually has just under 350 beds, but the count soared to nearly 500 on April 14, Becker said, after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered hospitals to expand to handle the deluge of COVID-19 patients.

The technicians have always known that their opponents were potentially deadly pathogens; the coronavirus reinforced the efficacy of their procedures. 

“We do everything to a high standard to begin with,” Davis said, and after the virus arrived, “took it a step above.”

New York judges hospitals every year on the quality of care they offer, including infection rates. By one indicator — the ability to fight MRSA infections — the hospital hovers around the state average, according to health department data.

Nazario and James Plotner, 63, the environmental services department’s assistant director, say their responsibilities encompass far more than stocking up on powerful disinfectants and personal protective equipment, and thoroughly training their staff.

“Without the camaraderie, we can’t get this done,” Nazario said, adding that he is running his department like a family during the crisis, meeting daily to discuss developments — and how the techs are feeling.

“Everything’s a red zone; it’s something you have to talk about every day,” he said.

Huddles help them handle the grief, pain and fear. “You have to prepare yourself for what you’re going to see — it’s not normal,” Nazario said.

“People are passing away and can’t see their family — we hope our families are not going to get sick and have to deal with what we see here,” he said.

If a technician is hesitant to tackle a particular job, someone else steps in, so no one feels pressured, the workers said.

Shamel Johnson, 27, of Freeport is known as the Ghostbuster; he wields a spray gun disinfecting all the common areas and anything anyone might touch.

“The main thing is, we communicate with everybody here; we try to put a real sense of service into everything — and keep levelheaded and grounded,” Johnson said.

“You come in safe and you’re going to go home safe,” he said.

At home, he says, “I’m a neat freak.”

The workers say they take extra precautions to keep their families safe — leaving outer gear outside, for example, and hitting the showers without delay.

At the hospital, said Plotner: “They do it by the book; it keeps them safe — it keeps everybody safe.”

Nazario saluted his workers for showing up every day, 24 hours a day, to keep the virus at bay. “I’ve never been more proud of my staff,” he said.

And never underestimate the value of a little friendly encouragement for patients fighting a lethal disease while isolated from everyone they know and love.

Davis, Nazario said, “is the person you want to see when you are sick in a bed; he lightens up the room with a smile.”

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