He cleans ‘COVID rooms’ in the ICU — and keeps dying patients company

He can’t see it but JR LeBlanc knows he’s coming into contact with COVID-19 every shift.

When the pandemic began, LeBlanc was tasked with cleaning his hospital’s ICU and what he calls the “COVID rooms”, where people with confirmed cases stay. First, he tears the curtains down. Then he deep cleans the walls, beds, wires, the washroom and every counter top.

“It’s not easy for anybody to do this job,” said LeBlanc, a cleaner at Southlake Regional Health Centre, in Newmarket, Ont., north of Toronto. “I’m scared … but I also make sure that I wear what I’m supposed to wear and I focus on what I’m doing.”

LeBlanc is an essential part in the fleet of workers cleaning up COVID-19 germs, to help contain outbreaks and keep the virus from spreading to others. 

He’s not worried about getting sick — he said the hospital is extremely clean and no visitors are allowed in. Doctors, nurses and cleaners are looking out for each other, making sure everyone is wearing the proper PPE, he said.

LeBlanc said it’s really tough seeing COVID-19 patients. ‘Most of them seem like they are in a coma when I’m looking at them. The family can’t visit them,’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t wish this on anybody.’ (Submitted by JR LeBlanc)

LeBlanc does worry about his two sons though. Both work in grocery stores, where he said many more people are coming and going.

“I’m in control of myself but I’m not in control of where they are,” he said. “I teach them … but you never know if someone [sick] could interact with them.”

‘Can’t just leave the waste sitting there’

LeBlanc carefully disposes of the trash — then it’s collected by people like Paul McKee. He picks up garbage around Hamilton and Niagara for GFL Environmental Waste, a private company.

His stops include hospitals and nursing homes where there have been outbreaks.

“We know that we’re coming across it,” he said of the virus. “You just can’t leave the waste sitting there because more people are going to get sick.”

Paul McKee said workers worry about physical distancing when they pull up at people’s homes. Many homeowners have been coming close, eager to talk to drivers. GFL has put up signs on its garbage trucks, urging people to stay back. (Submitted by Paul McKee)

McKee, vice-president for his local work union, said some collectors don’t want to pick up from long-term care homes anymore. Other Hamilton collectors refused work outright over safety concerns.

He said most of these issues have been resolved, with new protective measures put into place.

Recycling material from long-term care homes has been going into the garbage so there’s less risk of anyone touching contaminated material. Pick-ups from these facilities have been moved to the end of a driver’s shift, so the trash is in their truck for less time.

With many more people at home due to the pandemic, McKee has noticed a lot more garbage. That includes more medical waste, which people are putting in the wrong place.

Since the pandemic started, Quinte Waste Solutions has been seeing much more medical waste in its blue boxes. ‘You putting these materials in your recycling, you’re making someone’s job site unsafe,’ says Rebecca Foreman, the group’s communications coordinator. (Submitted by Rebecca Foreman)

Quinte Waste Solutions, which handles recycling and hazardous waste for nine eastern Ontario municipalities, has been seeing blue boxes stuffed with masks, gloves, even used toilet paper, since the pandemic started. 

James Genereaux sorts through it all after it’s been picked up. He’s been finding needles quite a bit too, hiding in the mountains of recycling. That puts workers like him at risk.

“It’s becoming a real issue,” he said. “It’s frustrating and it’s scary.”

When recycling and hazardous waste comes in, James Genereaux sorts through it all. ‘Everything that comes through this facility is touched by sorters,’ he said. The amount of medical waste they’ve been getting makes that tricky. He’s been wearing heavy duty PPE, including double gloves. (Submitted by James Genereaux)

In the past, workers have been pricked by needles. The added medical waste creates more risk.

He’s been wearing extra PPE to be cautious, but wants people to pay more attention to where they are putting their waste.

‘People don’t understand people are dying’

LeBlanc shares a similar frustration. He doesn’t think many are taking the pandemic as seriously as they should.

“People don’t understand people are dying. And I see it every day,” he said, having to extensively clean the room after they pass. “I’m tired of people complaining that they can’t go and get their haircut and ridiculous things like that.”

Haydn Watters introduces us to workers cleaning up germs, taking away that trash and then sorting it, putting themselves at high risk of getting the virus while doing it. 7:15

It sometimes makes LeBlanc feel sad — because he said these patients are largely dying alone. He tries his best to keep them company. Between his cleaning, he’ll talk to patients and tell them others are thinking about them.

“It takes a toll on you when you’re seeing people die,” he said. “It’s not that easy to see people die on a regular basis.”

LeBlanc doesn’t worry about himself getting sick. But he does worry about his family, including his two sons, who work at a grocery store. ‘I am too afraid to see my own mother because I don’t want to pass something onto her. Just in case. You never know.’ (Submitted by JR LeBlanc)

LeBlanc’s boys help him de-stress when he gets home after a long shift.

They’ll watch episodes of the Roseanne spinoff or his youngest son will bust out the karaoke machine and start rapping to Drake. It gives him a needed laugh.

“A lot of people don’t want to do what I’m doing,” he said. “If somebody wants to really take this seriously, you need to stay home.”

This is part of a series looking into the unexpected front-line workers of COVID-19, people in everyday jobs (like grocery store employeescouriers and workers making house repair calls) keeping things running while many stay home. If you have a job idea, email [email protected]

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