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Front-line workers have become everyday heroes

If I could speak with the version of myself who existed exactly one year ago today, I’d tell her a few things.

First, buy extra rolls of toilet paper before March. While you’re at it, suggest to your mom she look up “face masks” online and start sewing them for the entire family.

Second, get mentally prepared for a year of trying to explain germ theory to your preschool-age daughter.

Most importantly, consider every big decision you make in 2020 through the eyes of a state hospital nurse who’s worked overtime every day for 12 weeks in a row, who’s seen co-workers and patients fall ill with a mysterious disease, who hasn’t hugged her parents or adult children in months — but who still reports to work every day, committed to delivering safe care and services amidst a global pandemic.

She — and everyone she cares for — needs you to see her.

Of the roughly 16,000 people who work for the Department of Human Services across the commonwealth, about 6,200 of them report to work at one of the department’s 17 residential and therapeutic treatment facilities. They are physicians, nurses, food service workers, custodians, direct care staff, administrators and more.

Every day since this pandemic began, every single one of them has earned the right to be called a hero.

At Pennsylvania’s state centers and state hospitals, Department of Human Services employees have worked every day to mitigate the spread of covid-19, nursed residents and patients back to health, and endured the losses of those who never recovered. At Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice facilities, employees have provided compassion and stability to children and youth whose personal challenges collided with a global one.

For most of the last year, these 6,200 individuals have continued to show up, provide care, and constantly adjust to changing circumstances and protocols. They are front-line workers who, like those who work in private hospitals and long-term care facilities, have disproportionately endured the stress and trauma of this crisis. They are heroes to me.

They are also your neighbors.

Here, in the southwest region of Pennsylvania, employees have continued throughout the COVID-19 crisis to provide compassionate care to about 185 residents of Ebensburg State Center in Cambria County and about 270 patients at Torrance State Hospital in Derry Township. Pennsylvania’s state centers provide homes and services for individuals with intellectual disabilities, and Pennsylvania’s state hospitals provide comprehensive psychiatric treatment to people with mental illness.

At Torrance State Hospital and others across Pennsylvania, DHS employees volunteered for training on rapid COVID-19 testing systems that allowed our facilities to quickly identify outbreaks, isolate and treat individuals with positive results, and slow the spread of covid-19. Almost any state hospital employee — food service workers, security staff, clinical staff, direct care staff — could volunteer for the training and contribute to mitigation efforts. Hundreds stepped up.

This culture of collaboration among Pennsylvania’s state hospitals existed long before covid-19, but it’s even more deeply embedded now. Staffing has been a challenge for every health care and long-term care facility this year, as covid-19 outbreaks and potential exposures trigger lengthy isolation and quarantine periods.

Early in the pandemic, the leadership at Torrance provided support and supplies to Norristown State Hospital when it was managing a higher COVID-19 infection rate among staff and patients. More recently, with staffing levels stretched at Torrance, the leadership at Norristown offered to ask for volunteers to work at the sister hospital — four hours away — to ensure patients had the appropriate care over the holidays and subsequent weeks. Volunteers stepped up within hours.

Pennsylvania’s state centers are more than facilities — they are homes. At Ebensburg State Center, staff members have worked hard during the pandemic to keep residents engaged and entertained, while maintaining safe social distancing and following other public-health guidelines. That requires creativity and a depth of understanding of the people you serve.

Ebensburg’s staff recognized their residents’ need for normalcy, so they leaned into holiday traditions. They asked residents what they’d like to be for Halloween, and they purchased costumes for every resident who wanted one. Staff planned a socially distanced costume party and even arranged some residents’ theme music. For Christmas, the staff found ways to maintain all the traditions — caroling, holiday movies, even a visit from Santa — while following all necessary guidelines. Especially important this year: Staff helped residents create personalized holiday cards and gifts for their loved ones.

These are the kinds of above-and-beyond activities that can easily fall off the priority list even in normal years. The fact that Torrance State Hospital and Ebensburg State Center employees were able to safely pull this off — and so much more — during a pandemic is a testament to their devotion to the people they serve.

The to-do list at DHS facilities grew exponentially in 2020.

There was personal protective equipment to acquire and distribute. There were testing protocols and new, often evolving guidance to learn and implement. There were visitation restrictions to heartbreakingly enforce.

And when there was an outbreak of covid-19, there were beds to cohort, hands to hold and ambulances to call. There were goodbyes.

While approved vaccines represent a light at the end of this dark tunnel, COVID-19 will influence life at DHS’s state hospitals, state centers and juvenile justice facilities for many months to come.

As we mercifully turn the corner into a new year, I want to send an unequivocal message of appreciation and gratitude to the 6,200 individuals who work in DHS facilities. Your work has been lifesaving, and your compassion for vulnerable people has set an example we should all strive to follow in 2021.

On behalf of the Wolf administration and all Pennsylvanians, thank you.

Teresa Miller is secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.

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