Doctors, nurses, and first responders have been widely and rightfully celebrated as the frontline heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic. But, who keeps the heroes safe? Enter Larry Worley, Mary Devaney, and their staff at North Suburban Medical Center in Thornton, Colorado. Learn how this dedicated group of hospital environmental services workers provide a safe and healthy environment that ultimately saves lives.

Hospital environmental services workers clean and disinfect a hospital to prevent the spread of infection. Worley and Devaney serve as EVS director and manager, respectively, at North Suburban. Throughout this pandemic, they have seen their staff rise to the challenge to constantly provide a safe, clean space in a scary, unknown environment. Their staff has always worked hard, but their work has never been more crucial. 

Q&A With Hospital Environmental Services 

What does your typical day look like?

Larry:  I do rounds on the floors constantly. Part of my duty is to round with my staff members and to check in with patients to make sure everything is going smoothly for them. We make sure we do everything we can for [the patients] to make sure they feel at home. 

We clean and disinfect the hospital, top to bottom. 

So daily, I go to a patient’s room to let them know who I am and what I am going to be doing for them. I let them know what kind of experience I have and how long I’ve been with this facility. If there’s anything that they need, even if it’s outside the realm of housekeeping, I give them my extension and put them in touch with the right person to make it more of a positive experience for them.

Mary: I work evenings. I help assist the evening team to make sure we prioritize rooms correctly. Typically, if we get a lot of discharges at once, I’ll go and try to strip the rooms. But, my role is mainly to make sure there is a fluid system going and to make sure we get the right rooms ready as efficiently as we can. I also assist with the other areas of the hospital, such as the ER, X-Ray, NICU, the OR, to make sure they have everything that they need.

How has the pandemic impacted you and your staff?

Mary: The biggest thing that has changed is just making sure our staff knows we are doing everything we can to keep them safe. 

There were so many unknowns in the beginning, but I do think this hospital has kept us as safe as they could. 

We have the PPE we need, we make sure it is safe to go into certain rooms. We meet with our staff every day and make sure they understand any new information we get that affects them. Our infection control person came and talked to them to ease any concerns that they had because there was a big fear about having to go into these rooms in the beginning.

Larry: I would agree. The biggest change really has been education. The daily information that we receive from infection prevention and making sure it gets communicated to our staff; keeping that line of communication open has really kept us busy. 

Our cleaning has shifted more to terminal cleans. That means a complete overhaul of the room a couple of times and using different disinfectants in the whole room. We’ve also focused on different areas that usually don’t get disinfected every day. Now we use more disinfectants in places like public restrooms and public elevators and the high touch areas like buttons and door handles. We pay really close attention to those areas.

Also, if we go into a room with a COVID patient, we want to make sure our cleaning isn’t affecting their treatment in any way. We want to make sure they’re taken care of. We want to be a help to the nursing staff as well. 

That’s been a big change as well; you know, the teams of nurses and housekeeping getting along better, more like family. We can rely on them to take care of the patients, and they can rely on us to keep them and the patients safe. 

How has your staff handled the risk of infection they take every day?

Larry: There’s always a risk of getting infected. How they’ve handled that risk is really listening to us and seeking education from us. My housekeepers are really in tune with the education piece. They ask the questions of, “What are we doing today? What have we learned since yesterday?” They’re asking more questions about the safety, but that’s how we know they’re listening. It’s been scary for the housekeepers because of the unknown. We’ve had a few leave, you know, they were worried and concerned for their safety, but overall our staff has been strong.

The fear of all of this is the biggest challenge. They would watch the news and see COVID affect so many people in such a negative way. And then they educated themselves and asked the right questions and learned how to protect themselves.

What has the support for your staff from the hospital administration looked like?

Larry: The support has been great. You know, they’re educating us so well. It’s nonstop information. This hospital as a whole has done a very great job as the leaders in all of this. 

Our leaders have kept in touch with the governor and with the CDC. They were seeking information on how to keep us safe rather than waiting for it.

Mary: I agree with that. We get constant communication from them which was hard for our staff at first. They felt like a lot changed really quickly. We reiterated to them that the steps we had to take in the beginning to protect ourselves were going to be big but necessary. Any information that’s gone out has gone to the entire hospital and not just specific departments.

What can your perspective teach people during this time?

Mary: I don’t think everyone totally understands the difference between cleaning something and disinfecting something. I come from a much bigger background in hotels, where cleanliness and making everything is pretty is a bigger priority than following chemical rules and making sure we’re disinfecting things properly. Out and about in your daily lives, people need to know how important it is to make sure you’re using the proper chemicals to not just clean something but to make sure that it’s actually sanitized or disinfected.

Larry: I also come from hotels, and before I started in this career, I would clean but it wasn’t until I started here that I understood what it meant to disinfect. What I would want people to know from this is that it is very important that you also understand that difference. It’s a life or death situation. You can never disinfect too much.

You know, cleaning, you’re just moving germs around. When we disinfect something, we kill the germs so they can’t move from one surface to another. So, you know, housekeeping, we disinfect. We kill the virus. We’re the ones keeping people, family members, the public, fellow employees, patients, safe. I want people to understand how important that is.

What is one thing you want the public to know?

Mary: I think [at the hospital] the team outside of housekeeping does a good job of recognizing them, but I know that people don’t always see their housekeeper or know that they’re there so they don’t really think about them. In any industry housekeepers are a very vital role. Moving forward, I think a lot of industries will have a bigger focus in that area. So, just remembering they’re important and if you see them or if you talk to them a simple thank you goes a long way.

Larry: I also think that what I would want people to understand is how important housekeeping is to the entire facility. 

Housekeeping saves lives through cleaning and disinfecting. But aside from cleaning, you know, when we go into a room and encounter a patient, we make sure that the experience goes well. We want them to feel comfortable. They don’t want to be here, they have to be here, so we want to make it a positive experience. 

I tell my housekeepers, “Make them remember you. Make sure they know who you are and how important you are.” We do work hard, and I just appreciate having the opportunity to let people see that.

Next Up

So far we have heard from a health care worker, a restaurant essential worker, a teacher, and a mask-making hero. Join us next week to learn from a local grocery store. In the meantime, if you know someone who should be featured on Heroes of COVID-19, message us on Instagram to nominate them.