The $10-an-hour workers cleaning hospitals during COVID-19

Juli Winters likes to chat with patients while cleaning the emergency room at Texas Vista Medical Center, but the man in the room at the end of the hall was so sick with COVID-19 that he couldn’t speak.

Even under the plastic surgical gown that usually makes her sweat, Winters felt chills creep up her skin. When she finished cleaning, she stepped into the hallway and made a sign of the cross.

“He’s blue,” she said.

Winters, 58, has worked in hospitals for almost 40 years. She can sense when a patient won’t pull through. She paused for a moment, then added: “It’s sad, but it’s the truth.”

She never knows what each day will bring. Whether she’ll end up cleaning the rooms in the emergency department 53 times or 20. If the hospital will have another housekeeper on staff in the ER to help her, or if she’ll be solely responsible for the two lobbies; doctors’ lounge; nurses’ station; medical supply room; eight bathrooms; and more than two-dozen patient rooms.

Winters, 58, must wear an N95 and plastic surgical gown while she cleans rooms holding COVID-19 patients. When they leave the hospital, she must sanitize every inch of their rooms.

Jessica Phelps /San Antonio Express-News

Lately, it’s been so busy with an influx of COVID-19 patients that the hospital on the Southwest Side has run out of rooms, so she must also clean as many as a half-dozen hospital beds lining the emergency room hallways.

Armed with gloves, mops and bleach, Winters and her coworkers have labored alongside nurses and doctors in the battle against COVID-19 for the last 18 months.

But for the most part, the billboards and advertisements praising “Health care Heroes” have largely featured the higher-paid doctors and nurses, posing in scrubs and white coats.

Winters sanitizes every surface of the emergency room that’s touched by patients. She also changes bed sheets; scrubs feces thrown on walls by patients experiencing psychiatric crises; empties containers full of used needles; wipes blood from the floor. On rare occasions, she’s also cleaned the refrigerated trailer used during the pandemic to store bodies.