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Hospital's 'unsung' hero didn't hesitate when offered the COVID-19 vaccine

When Maria Fernandes, who has cleaned rooms at

When Maria Fernandes, who has cleaned rooms at NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island for 29 years, was offered the vaccine in the first wave of coronavirus vaccinations, she took it. Credit: Newsday / Steve Pfost

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, Maria Fernandes has seen countless patients in NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island struggling to survive COVID-19, and in many cases, not making it.

So when Fernandes, who has cleaned rooms at the Mineola hospital for 29 years, was offered the vaccine in the first wave of coronavirus vaccinations -- along with others on the front lines -- she took it.

"I don’t want to be in their shoes," she said of COVID-19 patients. "I don’t want to be in their beds."

Doctors and nurses who have put themselves at high risk for contracting the coronavirus were among the first people to receive COVID-19 vaccines, starting Dec. 14. Along with them in the earliest stages of vaccinations have been others who risked their health and lives as they worked near patients: the employees who clean patient rooms, bring medications and food to patients, provide security, transport patients for procedures like CT scans, and deliver other services critical to hospitals.

"All of these people may not get the credit, but they are the backbone for the services we provide, and they are exposed to COVID, and certainly we have to ensure their safety as well as the safety of others," said Dr. Marc Adler, chief medical officer of NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island. "These are unsung heroes."

Dr. Aaron Glatt, chief of infectious diseases at Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital in Oceanside, said it’s important to "not look at the title of a person, but look at the work the person does. So if you’re in the room with a patient, it doesn’t make a difference if you’re the doctor, the nurse, the respiratory therapist, the housekeeper or an engineer. If you’re in the room, you should get vaccinated."

Mercedes Molina, who as an environmental services employee at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park cleans rooms, said she had been especially anxious in the early months of the pandemic, when there were more COVID-19 patients and death rates were higher.

"At the beginning, I had a lot of fear going into their rooms," Molina, 52, of Queens Village, said in Spanish. "The patients are there, and they’re sometimes sneezing or coughing."

In April, she got sick with body aches, fever, headaches and diarrhea and, although she stayed home from work until given permission to return from a doctor, she didn’t get a coronavirus test. In July, she tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies.

"Now I’m not as fearful, because I know I survived, I resisted the disease," said Molina, who is unsure if she was infected on the job or elsewhere.

She got vaccinated on Christmas Eve.

Elida Gardella, an environmental services employee at South Nassau who works in the intensive care unit, where many of the sickest COVID-19 patients are, was one of the first employees at the hospital to receive a vaccine on Dec. 15.

"It’s important to feel protected — to feel protected myself, to feel my family is protected and my co-workers and all people are protected," she said in Spanish.

Gardella, 57, of Island Park, wears personal protective equipment such as N95 masks while on the job. But she knows that even though PPE reduces risk, it doesn’t eliminate it and, like Molina, said concern about infecting family members was a key reason why she took the vaccine.

"You always worry, despite all the precautions you take," she said.

Fernandes, 64, of East Meadow, typically is in each patient room once a day, but "sometimes they throw up and sometimes there’s blood on the floor," so she has to go in multiple times.

"We sanitize the room, the faucets, the doorknobs, the sinks, the switches on the lights, everything," she said. "And then we sweep and mop and pick up the garbage."

Fernandes, the second employee at her hospital to take the vaccine, said that in nearly three decades there, she had never seen so much suffering and so many patients who never got better. Many people whose rooms she cleaned, died.

"Sometimes you leave the room and they’re still alive, and the next morning, there’s somebody else there already," she said. "It’s so sad."

Fernandes said some colleagues are wary of taking the vaccine, in part because they’re worried research into the vaccines was rushed, although experts said that despite the accelerated process, the vaccines that received federal authorization for emergency use have gone through rigorous scientific review.

But she’s comfortable she took it, especially because, after her, many of her colleagues did so as well.

"I saw doctors taking it, I saw all my supervisors taking it, and I said, ‘Listen, if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me,’ " Fernandes said.

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