This post was originally published on St. Louis American

By Sylvester Brown Jr.

Kenyetta Tomlin, 40, said she’s fed up with COVID-19. Her grandparents, Eugene and Ernestine D. Garrett succumbed to the virus just as it reached the “pandemic” stage.

For the past four years, Tomlin has been employed at BJC as an emergency room housekeeper. She’s a single mother with three girls (ages 7, 10 and 15) who worries about them contracting the virus from school. Tomlin is exhausted from the talk of death at her job and the deaths of loved ones who’ve passed away since early 2020.

“I’m just tired of death,” she said. “I’m tired of every time you turn around and people are saying, ‘we’re almost over the pandemic,’ and then it’s like, ‘oh, there’s a new strain in this or that country.’ Then there’s another strain. It’s like, ‘What? When will it end?”’ 

Tomlin’s feelings are associated with what researchers call “COVID fatigue.” According to a January 2022 WebMD poll, three-fourths of respondents said they are experiencing symptoms of fatigue, defined as “being angry, exhausted, frustrated or just plain fed up with disruptions to their lives or those of your family and friends.”

Her COVID journey began in February 2020, when little was known about the pandemic. Her grandfather was an active 80-year-old, a deacon at his church who had his own landscaping business. Tomlin said it was odd when she visited her grandparents to see Ernest “in his pajamas for days.” Eventually, Ernest went to St. Mary’s Hospital where he was diagnosed with pneumonia. No biggie, she thought. Her grandfather had the illness a year prior.

Then, about a week after Ernest was admitted, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a fast-spreading pandemic.He was tested for the virus. The results came back positive.

By this time, Tomlin had learned enough from nurses at her job to know her grandmother should be tested, too. Before Ernest’s diagnosis, Ernestine was visiting her husband daily at the hospital. She began showing symptoms, was exhausted and had trouble breathing. Tomlin convinced her relatives to get Ernestine tested.

Again, the results were “positive.” Ernestine was hospitalized as well. After nurses realized that “Mrs. Garret,” was Mr. Garrett’s wife, they put them in the same hospital room.

Tomlin’s grandparents died within six or seven minutes of each other, she said sadly.

The pandemic also created chaos for the death care industry. Funeral homes and cemeteries had to quickly adopt safety precautions to avoid the post-mortem spread of COVID-19.

For Tomlin’s family, this meant waiting for clearance from the Health Department to enter her grandparents’ home to retrieve needed paperwork and clothes for the burials. It meant limited numbers of loved ones at the funeral home, and mostly outdoor services.

Her grandparent’s deaths occurred at a time of sheer pandemonium at Tomlin’s job.

“Things changed so quickly at work,” she said. “We went from being able to help visitors to nobody being in the hall but employees. Nobody could come into the hospital. They had to drop their loved ones off and just hope.

“The death rate was so high, and it seemed like doctors didn’t know what to do. People were put on ventilators. Some survived, some didn’t.”

By March 2020, hospital workers were panicked by shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) including gloves, medical masks, respirators, goggles, face shields, gowns, and aprons. Fellow environmental service workers and nurses openly talked about their fears of protecting themselves, patients getting infected or infecting others.

As a diabetic, Tomlin said she was extremely nervous, but her biggest concern was for her daughter’s health.

“I definitely didn’t want to take anything home to my kids because my 10-year-old has an immune deficiency,” she confessed.

“I was always so nervous. I’d leave my shoes at work. I’d undress at the front door, put my clothes in a bag and quickly take my clothes to the basement and wash them.”

Kenyetta said she got some comfort from nurses who had been at the job for “30 or more years.” She said those who worked through the AIDS, Swine Flu, Ebola and/or Zika Virus epidemics assured her that “this will blow over, too.”

But those who just got out of nursing school, she said, “were like “this is not what I signed up for!”

Several of her coworkers quit or took early retirement. This was not an option since she had just been on the job for two years and depended on it for benefits including health insurance.

In fact, Tolin had to have surgery in October 2020. Because of complications from the operation, she didn’t go back to work for eight months.  She found solace because she was home with her daughters as they went through the challenges of virtual learning. Her 15-year-old was basically in charge as Kenyetta recuperated.

While she healed, she anxiously waited for the pandemic to end. She remembers hearing theories from home and expecting the worst to be over when she returned to work.

It wasn’t.

“People were saying, ‘the cold weather or the hot weather is going to kill the virus,’” she recalled. “Shoot, apparently, COVID is gonna do whatever it wants to do.”

She also shared feelings of frustration when many people and politicians prematurely declared the pandemic over at the end of 2020.   worry.’ When really they were just worried about losing money.”

Tonlin returned to work after a coronavirus surge. Many people had traveled and gathered for the holidays during the winter months of 2020–21. By this time much had been done to address the fears and concerns of doctors and nurses.  Not as much attention, she said, was aimed at comforting environmental service workers like her.

“Yeah, they talk a lot about doctors and nurses sometimes. But they never talk about those of us in the background whether it’s those sanitizing a room or the ones cleaning rooms after surgery. What about us?,” she pleaded.

Again, she was not alone with such feelings. A 2021 study published by in the American Journal of Infection reported that ESWs found themselves as having low social status in comparison to other workers, facing numerous barriers which include high work demands, “us vs. them” attitudes, work interruptions and a lack of communication with higher-ups about their concerns and grievances.

Tomlin’s “tired of death” comment wasn’t just COVID-related. Her older sister of two years passed from cardiac arrest days after a kidney transplant. She, her sister and mother, who died at the age 45, suffered from diabetes.

Oddly, the precariousness of life has given Kenyetta a sense of gratitude during the ongoing pandemic:

“I just thank God as soon as my eyes open in the morning. I have another chance and He’s allowed me to be here for my kids,” she stressed. “That’s all I ask: ‘please let me be here long enough for my kids to get grown.’”

Sylvester Brown Jr. is The St. Louis American’s inaugural Deaconess Fellow.