Working

MercyOne Dubuque Medical Center dietary assistant Teresa Jimenez prepares food for patients on Wednesday.

Ask Teresa Jimenez to prepare meals for 97 patients, and she flies through the day.

Her eight-hour shift in the hospital kitchen began Wednesday at 6 a.m. As pots clattered in the background, she ladled cubed pears into bowls and arranged them on metal trays, then checked meal order forms before gathering juice cups.

Jimenez, who works as a dietary assistant at MercyOne Dubuque Medical Center, initially feared contracting the coronavirus when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

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“I was afraid to come to work,” she said. “But then, I just got used to it. I’m just careful. I wash my hands every time. Gloves. Hand sanitizer.”

Feeding a medical facility is a never- ending task, and Jimenez is one of about 2,500 hospital food preparation workers in Iowa who do so.

But kitchen staff, along with the cleaning crews and maintenance workers who keep the institutions running behind the scenes, are not always in the public eye during discussions of “essential workers” who serve on the frontlines. Yet, working in the health care sector, they, too, risk exposure to patients or infectious materials.

Jimenez’s greatest fear is carrying the coronavirus home to her Dubuque residence, where she lives with her husband and three children.

Before she leaves work, the 42-year-old lathers her hands and arms up past her elbows. Jimenez sprays her shoes with Lysol and then proceeds home — straight to the shower.

On the one or two days per week when she wheels trays to patients’ rooms, she makes sure to change out of her clothes in her garage.

“My kids know what time I get home, so they know not to get near me,” Jimenez said, with a chuckle.

During the first weeks of the pandemic, very few people would have been able to see the maintenance crews rearranging furniture, adjusting airflow systems and installing Plexiglass barriers at UnityPoint Health-Finley Hospital in Dubuque.

In preparation for an expected surge of COVID-19 patients, facilities nationwide emptied their beds by canceling elective surgeries and implemented a host of infection-control measures recommended by state and federal health authorities.

“It was just go, go, go, nonstop,” said Mark Burke, Finley’s facilities manager. “One of the biggest things that we had to do in the beginning was lock the hospital down and provide only certain entrances in, so that people could be screened.”

When Finley staff members were not maintaining the facility, they traveled throughout Dubuque fetching donations of personal protective equipment from area companies.

“A lot of things fell to the facilities department,” said spokeswoman Ann Cannon.

Jimenez feels people generally do not think about the importance of kitchen workers, but she shrugs off the thought.

There is too much to do — more lids to snap on dishes filled with jello and rows of industrial coolers to fill with bowls of salad.

“It keeps me going,” she said. “I’m running all the time. The day goes by fast.”