Cleaners on the frontline during Covid crisis

At the CUH yesterday, were from left, Fiona Grant, housekeeping CUH; Susan Justice, housekeeping CUMH and Lorraine Collins, health care assistant CUH. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
By Liz Dunphy

Dedicated to fighting the spread of Covid-19 in Cork University Hospital, Fiona Grant has taken only one day off in the last four weeks.

“I’m exhausted but it’s for a good cause,” says the housekeeping worker, who has been coming in on her days off.

“This virus is very dangerous and cleanliness is key. I personally don’t let myself think about the dangers. We’re frontline staff, we know the risks and we’re dedicated.”

Fiona Grant, a member of the housekeeping services team at CUH
Fiona Grant, a member of the housekeeping services team at CUH

Health Minister Simon Harris recently acknowledged the vital work Fiona and her colleagues do, thanking them on Twitter: “You are on the frontline and your work is crucial in our national effort against the #coronavirus.”

“We’re extremely proud of our work,” says Ms Grant.

“Before, ‘frontline staff’ were only thought of as doctors and nurses but we’re all frontline staff.

"You couldn’t keep CUH open without the cleaners, catering, the porters.

“More people have an understanding of the importance of cleaning now.

"Patients and visitors say ‘thank you’ when they see you cleaning now, which is really lovely. It’s nice to be appreciated.”

CUH is the busiest acute hospital outside of Dublin and employs about 3,000.

Ms Grant says she spends her days cleaning floors and bathrooms, wiping doorhandles, bannisters, and everywhere people touch, and fumigating rooms — in which everything is disinfected if there’s a suspected coronavirus case.

“We fumigated four rooms in two hours already today,” she says.

“Everything is wiped down with Actichlor — a Milton-based tablet with chlorine and disinfectant — the floor, the ceilings, the curtains, and screens are taken down.

"It takes two people a good half-hour to fumigate one small room.

“We’re all highly trained in PPE, every staff member, and there are training sessions all day in the auditorium on PPE.

“Donning and doffing is very important — putting on the full PPE — gown, hairnet, goggles, mask, two pairs of gloves under and over the cuff.”

Despite her busy cleaning schedule, Ms Grant also finds time for the patients.

“I found it upsetting to see family or loved ones have to bring things to the door and leave.

"So I bring those things up to the patients for them. Sometimes I go to Tesco for patients who can’t get out or have people in. You have to. It could be your father or mother.

She adds: “These people don’t see anyone from morning to night apart from staff, so if they want to talk I’ll talk.

“It’s a tough time but we’ll get through it, we’re fighting for the cause and we’ll win.”

Susan Justice, who works in housekeeping at the adjacent Cork University Maternity Hospital, says she can understand a patient’s frustration or sadness at coming into hospital alone because she can no longer be with her family either.

“I went home to my apartment on Friday night and didn’t see another person until Monday morning at work,” she says.

“I’m from Clare and I haven’t been able to go back to see my family.

"They’re worried about me, they asked me to stop working and to just come home.

“But we’ve all committed to the HSE. This is what we’re trained for, to try to stop the virus spreading.

“Sometimes you want to cry, but you have to keep going. Keep cleaning.

“Because the safety of the mother and baby are our priority.”

TWITTER SIPTU HEALTH DIVISION : “This is what we do every day. When we enter those rooms, they are cleaned from top to tail. We’re trained to do this, and we’ll keep on doing it."
TWITTER SIPTU HEALTH DIVISION : “This is what we do every day. When we enter those rooms, they are cleaned from top to tail. We’re trained to do this, and we’ll keep on doing it."

She said that the hospital responded quickly to the coronavirus outbreak, training staff and erecting tents outside CUMH where everyone’s temperature is taken before they can enter the hospital.

Ms Justice commended John Higgins, UCC Professor of Obstetrics & Gynaecology who runs CUMH for his work and foresight.

“He put everything in motion so quickly and when he sees our girls cleaning a door handle he tells them they’re doing a good job. That makes such a difference.

“We used to eat in the main canteen at CUH but we can’t go there since the outbreak, so Prof Higgins organised for breakfast, scones, lunch and dinner to be brought in to us.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that we’re protected.

"We have no problems here with PPE.

“Everyone is exhausted, run into the ground, but everyone’s been amazing - the security, the girls on reception. Everyone.”

Her colleague next door in CUH, Ian Morey, explained their predicament eloquently in a video published on Monday by trade union SIPTU.

“We’re going right into the middle of the virus,” Mr Morey, who also works in housekeeping, said.

“We’re taking massive risks, we’re in the environment where the bug is breeding, we’re taking massive chances for our lives, our families.

“We’re a massive team in here, a massive family and we’re all here to support each other.”

The latest restrictions in operation since Friday, March 27 mandate that everyone should stay at home, only leaving to:

  • Shop for essential food and household goods;
  • Attend medical appointments, collect medicine or other health products;
  • Care for children, older people or other vulnerable people - this excludes social family visits;
  • Exercise outdoors - within 2kms of your home and only with members of your own household, keeping 2 metres distance between you and other people
  • Travel to work if you provide an essential service - be sure to practice social distancing