'This is my chance to thank New York,' says an immigrant working in a coronavirus hospital 'red zone'

Hunter Walker
White House Correspondent

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For the past five years, Gina Rejas, an immigrant from Peru, has worked as a housekeeper at White Plains Hospital in Westchester County, N.Y., one of the places hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Rejas’s unit is a “red zone” dedicated solely to patients infected with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. 

On Saturday, Rejas, who moved to New York in 2001, went to Facebook to share her feelings about working on the frontlines of the pandemic.  

“This is my chance to thank New York for making my family’s dreams come true,” she wrote in Spanish alongside a photo showing the full protective gear she wears every time she steps into her unit. 

Rejas is my mother-in-law, and after I shared her words on Twitter, the post ended up earning over 160,000 likes. I called her up to hear more about her experience as an immigrant fighting the battle against the coronavirus. Rejas admitted that she is afraid of catching the highly contagious disease that has killed thousands but said she sees her work as part of a “moral obligation” to her adopted home.

Gina Rejas. (Courtesy of Gina Rejas)

“I feel proud to be part of New York. I’m a New Yorker in spirit. I feel this way, and I want to hug everyone with my soul and tell them that we’re going to get through this,” she said.

Rejas’s unit at the hospital originally held pediatric and elderly patients. However, she said most of the hospital is now focused on COVID-19. On the days she is on duty, Rejas is the only housekeeper cleaning the rooms of 25 coronavirus patients. Before each shift, she dons shoe covers, a full-body gown, gloves, a mask and a full-face shield. Infection control specialists inspect all the staffers before they enter the unit. While someone died in the unit last week, Rejas said more and more of the patients she works with are recovering and leaving the hospital. 

“The work is hard, but actually what makes it more bearable is that the nurses inspire me. The work that they do is hard, but you never see them tired, you don’t see them exhausted. I don’t know where they get so much energy,” she said. “They make you day in and day out keep up with their pace. So this is what makes us a small but mighty team. We work together.” 

Rejas said she believes hospital support staff are less “valued” than other medical workers like doctors and nurses. At White Plains Hospital, she said, the housekeeping department has “opened its arms to immigrants” and includes a “multiracial” group, many of whom are still learning English.

“The cleaning department is in the frontline making sure that there aren’t infections, that there isn’t contagion. I want to tell people that we make it so when you arrive at the hospital you find a place that’s disinfected. I want to tell people that we will always greet you with a smile,” Rejas said.

Gina Rejas, center, with two of her colleagues. (Courtesy of Gina Rejas)

And Rejas said there’s one thing she wants other Americans to understand about immigrant workers.

“Immigrants — whether they’re from Asia, Africa, South America, Central America — wherever they’re from, come to this country to contribute because we give the best of us,” she said. “We’re the foundation for the new generations. That’s what makes our American dream happen.”

She also had another message to share about the coronavirus. Rejas urged everyone to follow the guidelines and remain in their homes if possible to stem the spread of the disease and give essential workers an opportunity to do their jobs.

“Please, give the train conductors, the bus drivers and the people who serve you in the supermarkets everything that we need to safely get back to our homes,” said Rejas. “If you have the privilege to be in your house, stay home.” 

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