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What it’s like to be a frontline worker during the coronavirus pandemic

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Americans are pulling together by staying at least 6 feet apart. Armed with their laptops and rolls of toilet paper, many people are able to remain at home to work or study. But some things can’t be done remotely. So in the midst of a global pandemic, many essential workers must leave their homes every day to keep the rest of the country fed, healthy and safe.  

Hospital chaplain

At first, Father Stefan Starzynski noticed Inova Fairfax Hospital was limiting visiting hours. Then visitors were screened at the entrances. Then volunteer extraordinary ministers of holy Communion began to drop off. Their average age is about 70, said Father Starzynski, and their doctors were warning them it was no longer safe for them to go out, much less to a hospital. 

Then he got a text saying all hospital volunteer services would be suspended. But Father Starzynski and Father Joseph Sunny, parochial vicar of St. Timothy Church in Chantilly who also ministers at the hospital, were allowed to continue their work. 

As his fellow priests grapple with the new normal of livestream Masses and socially distanced confessions, Father Starzynski is still ministering to the sick and dying. “I’m the only priest who’s essentially doing the exact same thing I was doing before. The hospital still has all the patients that it had before,” he said. “But it feels different.”

Cleanliness has always been paramount at the hospital. But recently Father Starzynski has gone through additional training, too. “Father Sunny and I have gone through the classes for all the procedures —mask, gloves, goggles. We are taking the same precautions that any doctors and nurses are,” said Father Starzynski. He’s already administered the sacrament of anointing of the sick to several people diagnosed with COVID-19. “I've had to face my own fears as I've come closer to it. It’s become more and more real.” 

Grocery clerk

Getting supplies off the truck and onto the sales floor quickly is the name of the game for Pat Callahan, grocery expert, and his coworkers. As customers bulk up on supplies to avoid leaving their homes, keeping the grocery shelves stocked has become difficult, said Callahan, a parishioner of St. James Church in Falls Church who has worked at Target for 15 years. On recent mornings, dozens of people have lined up outside the door before the store opened, poised to purchase whatever they can. 

“The sales have been insane, but the problem is we’re running out of stuff. Once it’s on the shelf —pasta, soup, toilet paper, paper towels, sanitizer — it’s gone in like 10 minutes,” said Callahan. “It’s been, not stressful, but a challenge.” In appreciation for all the work, Target CEO Brian Cornell gave employees a $2 an hour pay raise until at least May 2. 

Customer reactions to the crisis have run the gamut, said Callahan. “Some people definitely feel like they’re the only person on the planet and it’s very frustrating, but a lot of people are very thankful,” he said. “I’ve been told, ‘Hey, thank you for being here, sincerely,’ and I appreciate that.”

Working in the grocery department, Callahan said he and his coworkers wash their hands often. But recently he’s seen people more diligently using hand sanitizer and spraying down tables in the break room. “I’d say we’re not afraid of the health situation because everyone has taken the precautions necessary,” said Callahan. “But I do think that we’re on high alert.” 

As the crisis looms on, Callahan is more concerned about people out of work than people like himself. “I'm fine. I think that the people who are most hard up are the restaurant workers. That’s what I’ve been thinking about the most the last couple of weeks,” he said. “Once restaurants start opening up, go out to eat and tip your waiter super well. I’m going to tip a lot better than what I used to.” 

Building engineer

Though nearly devoid of workers, the two Alexandria office buildings Juan Gonzalez manages are still full of pipes and ducts, wires and locks, walls and windows, machines and systems that need to be kept humming until the building’s occupants return. So he still goes in every day to monitor the buildings, albeit for fewer hours than he did before. 

Besides planned vacations, he said, “I am on-call 24/7, 365 working by myself.”

As the new coronavirus crisis escalated, Gonzalez, a parishioner of St. Anthony of Padua Church in Falls Church, ramped up personal precautions as he moved throughout the buildings. “I got hand sanitizer, I got my gloves. I used the gloves only like 30 minutes and then I threw them away and cleaned my hands,” he said. “In my office, I’d clean my keyboard, my desk, everything like that. I talked to people from like three feet away.”

Gonzalez has maintained a lot of those precautions though he sees a lot fewer people nowadays. Though the building’s needs may be unpredictable, in general he’s grateful for a job with a schedule that gives him time on the weekend to go to church or just take a break. “I love my job and I do the best I can,” he said. 

OB-GYN

Taking a woman’s blood pressure. Performing an ultrasound. Measuring an unborn baby’s growth. There’s a lot about obstetrics that makes telemedicine nearly impossible, said Dr. Xiaoyin Home, a parishioner at St. Timothy Church in Chantilly who works at Prince William Medical Center and volunteers once a week at the Catholic Charities Mother of Mercy Free Medical Clinic in Manassas. “Especially patients in their third trimester, you need to see them every week. Those are things you cannot postpone because it really concerns two lives,” she said. 

So Home and other health care professionals are putting additional precautions in place so that they can continue to provide vital health care to their patients. Before an appointment, patients are sent a questionnaire asking them to stay home if they have upper respiratory infection symptoms, or to go to the hospital if symptoms are severe. They schedule patients so that no more than 10 are in a room at a time. They screen patients’ temperatures to see if they have a fever. “Immunity goes down during pregnancy so that’s very risky if we have someone who’s sick who comes to the clinic,” she said. 

It’s also risky for the health care providers. “In any working day for any health care providers, we are always at risk of all kinds of pathogens,” said Home. Coronavirus is no exception. “I treat everyone as if they have it because the community spread has already started. We just take precautions and use our clinical judgment and be extra careful.”

That’s getting more difficult to do as medical safety supplies run low. Home has taken to relining and reusing some face masks as a result. It’s difficult and unfortunate, but she also feels it’s her duty to care for people in trying times. “You sign up for this,” she said. “It’s like a soldier, they send you to war and you have to prepare to sacrifice. That's the job.”

She still prays people keep her, other medical professionals and at-risk populations in mind as they make decisions during the pandemic. “I'm asking people don’t be selfish. This is not the right time to exercise your personal right to walk all over the place to spread the virus,” said Home. “Who's going to get hit the most? We are, the health care providers.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020

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