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‘I’m not the same’: Santa Rosa hospital cleaner’s life turned upside-down during pandemic

A Year Like No Other — Coronavirus Pandemic in Sonoma County

As Sonoma County marks the one-year anniversary of its unprecedented stay-home order that marked the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, The Press Democrat set out to tell the stories of how our lives have been changed in a year like no other.

In the series “A Year Like No Other” that continues through March, we are chronicling the evolution of the pandemic and its fallout through the eyes of people who live and work here. We thank Summit State Bank for supporting our efforts.

Read all the stories here.

When the first doses of vaccine hit the pipeline in mid-December, just as the nation plunged over the falls during the coronavirus pandemic’s deadliest surge, it felt a lot like a race. Would you get your vaccination before the virus got you?

Carmen Amavisca crossed the finish line Dec. 22. That’s when Amavisca, a housekeeper at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, got her first dose of Pfizer-BioNTech. Mentally, it was a huge relief. Physically, she felt awful. Amavisca got dizzy and nauseous, symptoms that persisted well beyond her 15-minute observation period.

You’re experiencing side effects of the vaccine, an ER doctor told her. You’ll be fine. But she wasn’t. Amavisca had contracted the coronavirus from a co-worker days before. COVID had beaten her to the finish line after all.

Her ensuing illness capped months of worry, exhaustion and frustration for Amavisca, a 33-year-old Santa Rosa native. As doctors and nurses have been applauded and celebrated during the pandemic — and rightly so — hospital support staff like food preparers and aides have gone largely ignored while experiencing many of the same hazards.

Few are at greater risk of exposure than hospital housekeepers. Medical cleaning crews work in proximity to bedridden patients in a confined space, wiping down bed rails, dumping trash and biohazards, mopping floors and sanitizing bathrooms. According to the National Union of Healthcare Workers, housekeepers at Santa Rosa Memorial make between $20.27 and $26.63 per hour.

Cleaning staff at Memorial is “about 97% Mexican,” Amavisca said with a laugh, and overwhelmingly female, another way these subsets of the population have borne a disproportionate burden during the health crisis.

Amavisca has labored in the profession for more than eight years, she said, and will have been at Memorial for four years in May. She serves as a steward in her union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers, an elected and unpaid position, and works in the hospital’s neurology department. It wasn’t the COVID ward, but Amavisca’s unit accepted many people transferred from nursing homes, and housekeeping staff were never sure if those patients were infected, she said.

And sure enough, cleaners began to contract the virus.

“At first it was just one or two who got sick,” Amavisca said. “Then it was like half the department got sick. And once they got better and returned to work, it was the other half.”

Amavisca endured constant stress during this period. She lives in Larkfield with her boyfriend; three daughters, aged 7, 13 and 16; her mother, who has epilepsy; and her great-uncle, who is approaching 80.

“I was super terrified to catch the virus and bring it to my family,” she said. “I would bring an extra change of clothes and I would change outside the house, including my shoes. I’d go in the back, which is next to the washer and dryer, and throw it all in there. I wouldn’t let anyone touch me. I’d go straight to the shower. I carried Lysol in my car, and I’d be spraying constantly.”

Amavisca said she was tested for coronavirus just once during the entire pandemic, despite multiple incidents of possible exposure.

The past year has left Amavisca disillusioned with her employer on many fronts. It began immediately as the virus began to spread in March 2020, she said, and housekeeping staff at Memorial weren’t getting adequate PPE. It set the table for a year of conflict over issues of safety, staffing and communication with Memorial’s parent company, Providence St. Joseph Health.

Chad Krilich, chief medical officer of Providence St. Joseph Health in Sonoma County, said the provider has adhered to safety guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state Department of Public Health to protect hospital staff and patients. The hospital began offering coronavirus tests to all caregivers in October, even if they were asymptomatic and hadn’t been exposed, he said. Every patient entering Memorial was tested for the virus, whether they were there for elective surgery or inpatient admission, he said.

“In the COVID-19 pandemic, our focus has always been on the safety of our patients and our caregivers,” Krilich said. “Our expectation for ourselves is that we adhere to that, to ensure great care for both.”

For Amavisca, getting infected while on the verge of immunity was a crushing blow.

“When the lady did my test, she said, ‘I’m pretty sure you have COVID,’ ” she recalled. “I sat in a Burger King parking lot and cried. I called my boyfriend. Because we had to prepare. I was so angry.”

A Year Like No Other — Coronavirus Pandemic in Sonoma County

As Sonoma County marks the one-year anniversary of its unprecedented stay-home order that marked the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, The Press Democrat set out to tell the stories of how our lives have been changed in a year like no other.

In the series “A Year Like No Other” that continues through March, we are chronicling the evolution of the pandemic and its fallout through the eyes of people who live and work here. We thank Summit State Bank for supporting our efforts.

Read all the stories here.

Amavisca tried to isolate in her bedroom as best she could. Her illness was rough going. She never developed a high fever, but she pretty much had everything else on the checklist of coronavirus symptoms.

“I was so scared to go to sleep at night, I felt I was not going to wake up,” Amavisca said. “I had to have family members constantly call me and wake me up. It was almost like sleep paralysis, where I wanted to get up and do something but couldn’t. It hurt. I had heart palpitations. My eyes were super red. I was nauseous.”

Three months later, Amavisca is back at work but still recovering. She has always had mild asthma, but said her shortness of breath has worsened. She lost her senses of taste and smell, and those are coming back almost too strong. Amavisca had built up tolerance for spicy foods. Now some dishes are too hot for her.

“I’m not the same,” Amavisca said.

She might have been speaking for all of us, with a little more reason than most to resent the past 12 months.

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

3 questions with Carmen Amavisca

Q: What was the moment when you realized the seriousness of the pandemic — that life would be very different moving forward?

A: “I think one day early on when we came out of our morning meetings. I took the elevator so I could go to my side of the hospital, and I literally saw a person with COVID being wheeled to ICU. She looked really, really sick and it scared me really bad.”

Q: What's your most vivid memory from the last year? Is there a particular moment that stands out?

A: “Me catching COVID and not giving it to any of my family members. That will stick with me forever. I was in my room the whole time. My boyfriend bought a special sponge so he could wash only my dishes. I had my own towel for the shower. When they’d feed me, they’d knock on the door and run away.”

Q: Has anything good come out of the pandemic — something you will continue doing after the pandemic is over?

A: “That I just really need to be more family-oriented. That way, I’m not hurting myself over this job.”

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