Perspective - Providing Essential Services at an NJ Hospital

by Katalyst International contributor Montana Peschler

Entering the west and east towers on the fourth floor of Robert Wood Johnson (RWJ) University Hospital in New Brunswick New Jersey, the doors open to the newly transformed and dedicated COVID-19 units. When delivering food trucks and trays to the two COVID floors, Jessica Carr, a food service worker and Rutgers University graduate, finds it difficult to breathe. She hurries to do her job as quickly as possible. 
image by raw
Carr first noticed a modification in visitor restrictions on March 16. Staff and visitor guidelines continued to change often from then on. In order to get into work, she now has to have her employee ID and must pass through check points obeying hospital protocol.
At one check point, “you stop, swipe your ID for a mask behind the counter and you hand sanitize,” Carr said. “You hand sanitize and [hospital staff hands] you a mask for the day.”
This specific protocol has been going on now for over two months. However, at one point in time, RWJ suffered from what seemed to be a mask shortage.
“It was kind of scary because last month out of nowhere, there was one week where they handed you a mask and a brown paper bag, then said ‘this is the only mask you get for a week’,” she said. “Then they stopped that, we got a new shipment and it was fine.”
When preparing trays of food for patients, all members of the kitchen staff must wear masks throughout the entirety of their shifts. With RWJ’s 16 COVID-19 isolation units, Carr knows when she is preparing food for infected patients. Instead of typical school cafeteria style plastic trays, COVID patients receive their food on foam.
When the hospital ran out of foam trays due to the high number of patients in isolation, RWJ made the switch to flimsy cardboard boxes. Ordering more foam trays crossed the hospital’s budget. Using disposable materials, also known as “paper service” according to Carr, greatly slows down the process of feeding patients. 
An interesting aspect during RWJ’s fight against COVID-19 is their census report, also known as the official count of the hospital’s admitted patients. It seems likely that during a pandemic a hospital’s census would sky-rocket. However, the opposite is occurring.
RWJ’s census has significantly dropped. Carr put into perspective that RWJ holds an estimated 800 beds and “it’s a very big hospital,” she said. “Usually around this time, the census would be around 600, which is normal. If it nears 700, it’s busy [and] if it’s under 500, it’s slow.”
When RWJ began shuttling patients out of the hospital who theoretically did not need extensive care, the census read anywhere from 300 to 500 admitted. With less people and food orders, the kitchen has been extremely slow. 
“We had a period of two weeks where it was so slow, they were going to start cutting people’s hours,” she said.
Although Carr’s specific job does not require her to see the hospital floors on a normal day, she knows RWJ is trying their best when experiencing overflows. Even though the census is down, the hospital is housing plenty of COVID patients, as entire units have been transformed. With such a high number of Coronavirus patients, RWJ is deemed a red zone. According to The Department of Emergency Medicine, a hospital inhabits a green, yellow and red zone. A green zone indicates non critical conditions or non-emergencies, while a yellow zone implies a patient is at high risk. A red zone requires immediate care and life saving intervention. 
Since Carr works at a hospital that is considered a red zone and sometimes delivers food trucks to COVID units despite physically going into the rooms, she does not attempt to go visit her parents.
“I feel like if I was self-isolating, I would be able to at least visit my parents and keep a six-foot social distance,” she said. “But since I work in a clinical setting, I don’t even consider going to go see them.”
As New Jersey citizens continue applying for unemployment, a total of 1.1 million New Jersians have successfully applied, let alone the 70,000 who just applied in one single week beginning in May. Carr is grateful that she has a job during the pandemic while others are struggling. Although she was fearful of her hours getting cut at RWJ, she picked up extra shifts to match the income she was receiving while working through Rutgers’ joint Health Dining Team Program. The program collaborated both the New Jersey Institute for Food and Rutgers Dining Service, however, Carr’s program hours did get cut.
Carr was happy when she discovered she was receiving hazard pay. Hazard pay allows U.S. essential employees to acquire either bonuses or extra compensation for risking their lives on the front lines at supermarkets, hospitals and more.
“It was based off a tier of how much patient contact you had,” she said. “I think it was three tiers: moderate, intensive contact or not much contact. [It was also] based on the number of hours you worked. I’m not really sure how they did it, but it was really nice to have that extra money.”
On May 15, The House in Washington DC, “successfully passed a fourth stimulus relief package” according to Forbes’ Terina Allen who covers careers, professional advancement and leadership development. “The $3 trillion Heroes Act contains a second round of $1,200 stimulus checks, $200 billion in hazard pay for essential workers, six additional months of COVID-19 unemployment, funding for state, local and tribal governments and food and housing assistance among several other things,” (Allen). 
As Carr is extremely appreciative of still having her job and receiving hazard pay, she still puts her life at risk each and every day at work.
“To a point sometimes when I go in, I can ignore it and kind of pretend it’s a normal work day,” she said. “[However], it makes me overthink a lot of things.”
When Carr gets home from work, she is extra cautious and has been frequently washing down every surface in her home as her shoes do not come into the house. She washes her floors more often and although she is hesitant on touching certain things, overall, she is more consciously clean.
With extra efforts and preventative measures, panic can still easily strike Carr while at work. Even while playing pretend. 
“When I go onto the unit floors that are for the virus, it caused a lot of anxiety,” she said. “Sometimes I feel like I can’t breathe when I’m there. I can’t even imagine being a nurse and actually treating these patients.”
At times, Carr shows guilt for feeling anxious given the fact that she is still employed and very grateful for it, but “I am in danger” she said. 
While some Americans stray from the lines of danger safely at home, the media can become easily absorbed through televisions and phone screens. Social media and each news outlet can effortlessly cause panic which raises the question of “is the news overplaying this virus? Is this information even true?” The spread of false news is rapid and quick similar to Coronavirus. But, since Carr is actively working at a hospital, she believes it is necessary for the media to portray it as they are.
“Even with the portrayal that’s going on, you still have people breaking social distancing and breaking quarantine and probably causing more spread of the virus,” she said. “You have nurses going in every single day risking their lives. You have to view it as a situation outside of yourself.”
Carr does acknowledge that the media’s scare tactics can be a bit much and, in the beginning, many individuals became overwhelmed. Still to this day, she deems that it is necessary.
“I don’t think there’s any room to downplay it,” she said.