It was so hot and steamy in there that I could feel sweat drip down the back of my calves. CALVES! Whose calves sweat anyway? Certainly not mine before, there’s nothing touching them. Except the plastic Tyvek hazmat suit I was inside of, which breathed about as well as a ziploc bag. Plus my face mask kept steaming up so that I’d have to use a tissue to wipe it clear in order to see out of it. But I’m not thinking about the rising temperature of the day, or even pending dehydration. I’m waiting for the next car to pull up.
Months ago, when Baltimore County had opened up drive through Covid-19 testing centers I “volunteered” (still paid, but not a part of my normal duties, and no one would force me to do it) to test. After 16yrs of telephonic desk nursing, I just wanted to feel like a real clinical nurse again. So I volunteered, twice actually, and I waited. And waited. Finally, I found out who was scheduling the testers, e-mailed her myself, and pushed to be put on the schedule. There were school nurses, and community nurses who could no longer do home visits, also being used in line ahead of me. But I wanted to be able to look back 30yrs from now and I say I got involved, so I did.
My first morning showing up at the testing site I found myself at the Donning Station where all the clean supplies were ready and waiting. I was given a white, plastic based hazmat suit to step into, and there were firemen waiting to duct tape my base layer of purple plastic gloves to my suit. They made sure to fold back small tabs on each piece of tape so that I could remove them myself afterwards.
Next came the blue plastic apron over my head, arms through, tying in the back. Then my mask (I had driven to the fire department to be sized for it last month), hairnet, pull my hazmat hood over my head, place the plastic face shield on my head, and finally, a second pair of plastic gloves. For the next four hours I would not eat, drink, or use the bathroom. Unless I wanted to waste PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) and have all eyes on me as I doff my garments, then re-don them upon my return, as everyone else continues working and toughing it out. No thanks, I’ll wait.
We all have jobs, and are assigned to one of six lanes of traffic. I am paired with another nurse, who quickly teaches me the simple test requirements of the lab kit we are using that day. Today’s kits were manufactured by Labcorp, and only required a Q-tip to be inserted less than an inch and rotated for 15 seconds per nare. Much less painful than the original test kit, requiring a long swab to reach the back of the sinus cavity through the nostrils. That one hurts! But each day we use whichever kit we are given and proceed according to directions.
In the beginning the time moved fast. We nurses only test, as there are other people who fill out lab slips, run the samples to the cooler, direct traffic, and monitor supplies. I hear stories of the week before, when there were about a thousand people in line (literally) and the cars were turning around and leaving because the wait was so long. It was the first day you didn’t need a doctor’s referral to come. Meaning, the first day people without insurance could be tested.
This day, about a week after that, the line was starting to space out and we even had 5-10 minutes between cars in our lane to sit down. My feet hurt. The guy next to me, the one who took my photo so I could remember this event even though I’m unable to have access to my phone, is a volunteer from the community. He works in HR during the day, and his mom raises standard poodles. He tells me about birthing poodles. His job here was moving the giant orange cone from in front of each car that tells the driver where to stop. It sounds boring, but the following week no one filled that position (the racism riots in the country took the National Guard away from directing traffic into our lanes, so those roles had to be filled first, and we ran out of volunteers), and it was a major pain to do it in gloves. You don’t want to touch the traffic cone in potentially COVID-19 dirty gloves, but once you touched it the gloves weren’t really clean either, so at what point in the testing process could you touch the traffic cone? It is ridiculously hard to put two plastic gloves on over top of each other, spraying hand sanitizer between pairs. I felt bad about all that waste.
The following week, the line was even more sparse. Administration added an hour to our shift (ugh, it’s now June and Baltimore is heating up), and cancelled the second shift. There is a longer wait between cars, so I start asking questions to those who have been here since the beginning. The (white) people with insurance all came at the start of the pandemic, which explained why I am now mostly seeing immigrants, undocumented, and as always, the elderly. They scare us with their driving. The other nurse and I each test kids in forward facing car seats, and they don’t even cry. But those two were the only little ones to come through. Not many children.
The process is that when a car comes through the gates to the fairgrounds they are given a piece of red paper placed on the windshield for each person in the car needing testing without an appointment. A green sheet for everyone needing testing with an appointment. Then they are to follow the lane of cones to the testing building (the Cow Palace) and there someone directs them into one of our six lanes. They drive in, a sign is held up telling them to turn off their engine (for our safety) and keep the windows up (for everyone’s safety). Place your drivers license up to the glass for ID and test result contact info. Phone numbers and birth dates are verbally confirmed through the glass. But people get confused and love rolling down their windows. By the time we get them to put them back up (the people taking contact info only have an apron and mask on) the information is usually captured on the lab slip, and it’s time to be swabbed. So I hold up a sign asking them to roll the window back down. For some reason in the new cars that don’t require a key in the ignition, NO ONE can put their windows down without starting their car. Now it’s a safety hazard again. We had one old lady come in to test without putting the car in park. Heaven knows how much she could see over her mask, let alone if she wasn’t feeling well.
But so far I have yet to see anyone cough or complain of symptoms. Most are just returning to work and need a negative test result. In my contact tracing training by the CDC online, a person must be within 6ft of an infected person for 15 minutes to be considered exposed. I spend an average of 40 seconds with each person. Even in a car of multiple people (and the truck I had to crawl into the rear middle seat to reach the toddler in a car seat), I spend less than 5 minutes total exposed before we send them on their way. I’m not worried about exposure with all this PPE. I hand each person a paper bag with information in it and instructions on retrieving their test results online.
It is the PPE that makes testing so physically brutal. All nurses know what it feels like to go 6-8hrs without food or bathroom breaks. But to have a plastic mask on your face for even an hour is much more uncomfortable to me than those days as a busy floor nurse. Especially on a slow days. Slow and uncomfortable is the worst. Having air on your face makes a huge difference when doing a task, it’s kinda surprising.
But the lines are slowing down considerably now, and more urgent care clinics are offering tests, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the County testing centers close sooner rather than later. I sure hope so, because July, in Baltimore, in a hazmat suit, is a lot to ask. We close 15 minutes early and head to the Doffing Station. We stand in trash bags as the firemen assist us in taking off the dirty layers first, then the clean, and finally, we keep our mask and face shield and spray them down with sanitizer and bleach wipes. We’ll use those masks five times, or until they fall apart. I stick mine in a ziplock bag, where it will stay until next week. Any germs I missed will be long dead.
There’s water, soda, and boxed lunches for the workers. I never make it out of the parking lot before I eat and drink. Mostly drink. The eating there is just to avoid the ruckus that awaits me at home. I still have cases to work and calls to make for my real job. But the most important thing I will be doing for the rest of the day is re-hydrating. I’m blasted! But I’ll happily do it again next week. After all, it isn’t everyday you get to be a part of history.