COVID-19: The 'Super Bowl' of Challenges

Ruben Castaneda

When Patrick Naughton learned in March that his hospital -- which he's responsible for keeping clean and sterile -- would be treating COVID-19 patients, he quickly embraced the challenge.

"This is like being in the Super Bowl," says Naughton, 29, team lead for environmental services for Geisinger Community Medical Center in Scranton, Pennsylvania. "This is like being in the big game. You want to be on the winning team, you don't want this to beat you. This is probably the biggest assignment I'll ever see. Me and my staff are part of something major."

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The eight-story hospital has 293 beds, and Naughton and his team are responsible for keeping the rooms and hallways of the facility clean and sterile. The stakes -- and the risks -- became higher for Naughton and his staff when the hospital began treating patients with COVID-19, the highly-infectious disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Naughton quarterbacks a team of nearly 50 team members who work in three separate shifts per 24-hour period. Many were afraid when the pandemic landed in their laps. He knew there was a chance that some would decline the new assignment out of concern for their health. "We knew that everybody wasn't going to stay, so we had to factor that in," he says. "Everybody has concerns. You can't fault anybody for their decision."

Fortunately, most stayed on the job. "Everyone who decided to stay on -- it's been very positive," Naughton says. At every chance he would talk to his team about the importance of their work, particularly during the pandemic, when everyone in the hospital, from patients to staff, were relying on them to help prevent the spread.

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Environmental services staff members are typically assigned to a floor and work in shifts.

Because it takes longer to clean rooms that have housed COVID-19 patients, Naughton made sure another worker was assigned to floors where COVID-19 patients were treated. The additional worker helps make sure non-COVID rooms are thoroughly cleaned.

"We wanted to make sure they weren't overwhelmed and that other rooms had adequate attention," Naughton says. Environmental services workers on all three shifts mopped and cleaned all surfaces, such as bed rails and doorknobs, with the same vigor they usually did.

In addition to managing his staff and making sure they have the personal protective equipment they need, Naughton's responsibilities include handling and disposing of biohazardous waste, like hospital gowns that have been soiled with blood and other bodily fluids. When the hospital began taking COVID-19 patients, the amount of biohazardous waste that he had to dispose of roughly doubled in volume, from about five loads daily to 10 or so.

Naughton says he's proud of the job his team is doing to keep the hospital sterile during the pandemic. He joined Geisinger at age 19, starting out in supply chain. He worked his way up to his current post, which he assumed in the past year.

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The environmental services team isn't typically in the spotlight, but colleagues and community members are showing their appreciation for the efforts of Naughton and his team.

One day, staff on the intensive care unit bought him and his team pizza, Naughton says. On several occasions, community members have sent pizza and sandwiches; some have donated homemade masks. A couple of local restaurants provided pasta dinners.

"We eat pretty well around here," he says. "The outpouring of support from people in the community has been really unbelievable."