When the Mariposa Community Health Center began testing patients for COVID-19 in late March, its healthcare workers took on new levels of responsibility and stress as they worked on the frontline of the pandemic.
Laboratory assistants Kassandra Jimenez and Monica Quinones, for example, recalled the first couple of weeks of COVID-19 testing as an “overwhelming” time that took some getting used to.
“One day we had so many patients that it was just crazy… We literally almost broke down crying,” Jimenez, 22, recalled. There were “a lot of things going on, everything going on at once, and I feel like everyone – the patients and us, as well – we were just freaked out and didn’t really know how to control ourselves at the time.”
But the tasks that were initially overwhelming and stressful have since become part of the workers’ daily routines on the job.
“I think now it’s more normal,” 33-year-old Quinones said, matter-of-factly. “I think we’ve managed to adjust.”
Now, a total of eight MCHC lab assistants conduct anywhere from 40 to 90 coronavirus tests per day, in addition to other duties that they were already performing before the pandemic hit Santa Cruz County.
The new coronavirus testing isn’t too different from the testing that the staff was conducting before the outbreak, said Dr. Eladio Pereira, MCHC’s chief medical officer. But the eight workers still had to undergo new training and master a specific skill set before they were allowed to do the COVID testing.
As patients pull their cars into the clinic’s curbside testing service for their scheduled appointments, Jimenez and Quinones explained, they are instructed to call the center’s number and share some personal information.
The lab assistants then gear up with their personal protective equipment – which includes a gown, head cover, face shield, N-95 face mask and gloves – and head out to the patients’ cars to collect nasal swab samples for testing.
While gathering samples from adult patients is typically very quick and easy, Quinones said, the task can be a bit more difficult with younger patients who have a harder time staying still while a healthcare worker inserts a testing swab inside each nostril.
“We usually have a parent help out with just trying to hold their head and their body still,” Quinones said of the process of gathering samples from pediatric patients.
She added that although the frontline workers at MCHC don’t experience the same amount of stress and anxiety as they initially did, the new norm has inevitably changed the way that they interact with their patients.
“I work with some pediatric patients and they’re huggers. Kids are huggers,” Quinones said with a chuckle. “But now we don’t get too close to the patient.”
“The way we show our sympathy is different,” she said.
‘It makes us feel good’
One of the main factors that helped Jimenez and Quinones get through the difficult first few weeks, they said, was feeling the support of their co-workers.
Jimenez said her family still worries that she’s more exposed at work and is afraid that she might bring the virus home. But she and Quinones insisted that they are taking all the necessary precautions and wearing the full outfit of PPE.
At the end of the workday, they said, they both keep their distance from their family members until they’ve had a chance to rinse off and change into new clothes.
“We do keep our distance before saying ‘Hi’ to any of our family members. It’s just the basic – washing hands and changing before hugging anybody in the household,” Jimenez said. “It’s something that we have to adjust to and that’s going to be part of our daily routine now.”
And although their jobs have put more stress on the lab assistants and their families, Jimenez and Quinones agreed that the importance of their work made it worthwhile.
“We just have more control of our emotions now,” Jimenez said. “It makes us feel good because if it wasn’t for us doing testing, we wouldn’t be diagnosing patients.”
“Without them, we couldn’t make a diagnosis and begin isolation to reduce spread,” Pereira added.