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Cleaning Staff At B-N Hospitals Are COVID's Unsung Heroes

Robin and Jeanice clean
OSF HealthCare
OSF St. Joseph Medical Center environmental services technicians Jeanice Harris, left, and Robin Dennewitz clean a room at the hospital.

For Robin Dennewitz, the best part of her cleaning job at OSF Healthcare St. Joseph Medical Center is talking to the patients. And they’ve never needed her more.

They need Dennewitz to keep them safe—and for a little companionship. Visitor policies are a lot tighter because of the pandemic.

“Sometimes during COVID, they’re really talkative because they’re lonely, because they don’t have anybody with them,” Dennewitz said. “So sometimes I might be in there 20 or 25 minutes.”

Dennewitz is part of a small army of cleaning technicians who’ve kept patients and employees safe at St. Joseph Medical Center in Bloomington and Carle BroMenn Medical Center in Normal. Cleanliness and hygiene have always been important in a hospital setting, but COVID makes it more so. Some of these technicians tell WGLT they feel more appreciated doing what they do, not unlike the doctors and nurses who’ve been hailed as heroes during this public health crisis.

But that doesn’t make it easy work.

Jeanice Harris
Credit OSF Healthcare / Courtesy
Jeanice Harris has worked at OSF St. Joseph Medical Center for about two years. She also fought COVID herself.

Dennewitz has been at OSF for nine years. As an environmental services technician in the hospital’s post-ICU area, COVID has meant big changes to her job. If she’s going into a COVID room, she has to gear up—including a powered air-purifying respirator (PAPR). It triggered her claustrophobia at first. Now it just gives her “COVID Hair.”

“An average day is 16 rooms,” Dennewitz said. “Sometimes I get lucky and I don’t have a full house. But most days I do now.”

Indeed, OSF St. Joseph and Carle BroMenn have seen more and more patients due to COVID. Capacity reached its lowest point in early December, when 97% of local hospital beds were in use. 

Howard Rowell is a level II floor technician at Carle BroMenn. He does a little of everything, from trash duty to providing relief help in the emergency department. When it’s time to do the floors, you can spot him cruising around the hospital on what looks like a little Zamboni. 

COVID has impacted his job in big and small ways. Rowell used to hang out with his co-workers on the weekend at regular potlucks. Not anymore. 

When the hospital first started to see COVID patients, Rowell was nervous. 

“I have a son. He lives with me. You just think about, what happens if I happen to catch COVID? I’d have to go home. I don’t want to pass it onto my family. I think about it all the time,” he said. “I’m just glad that we have things in place at the hospital that protect us. If you just follow those guidelines and all the PPE gear and all the masks we have to wear, it kind of eases the nervousness a little bit.” 

He’s also able to get the vaccine before the general public, which he plans to do soon. 

“Every day that I go in, I feel like I’m … maybe not saving a life, per se, but I feel like my part helps toward that goal, if that makes sense,” Rowell said. 

Jeanice Harris is an environmental services technician at OSF St. Joseph. But if you ask her what she does every day, she doesn’t start with the cleaning side of the job. 

She makes people smile. 

“I am the light. I am the sunshine to every room I walk into,” Harris said. 

And for those with COVID, Harris is able to connect in a personal way: She fought COVID herself and survived. 

“They couldn’t have picked a better person to go into their rooms,” Harris said. “I experienced it.” 

Harris said her job got overwhelming fast once COVID hit. She spends 5 to 7 minutes gearing up before going into certain rooms—putting on her two masks, goggles, gown and gloves. 

“You’re just hot in there,” Harris said. “And then you come out, take it off, wipe everything down, including your mop. And then do it all over. Room to room.” 

It’s been tough. She routinely thought about quitting in those first few weeks. 

“But I came back, and I was stronger each day,” she said. 

There is at least one nice perk.

“Now, since COVID has come,” she said, “I think the environmental services department is more appreciated throughout the hospital.”

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Ryan Denham is the content director for WGLT and WCBU.