COVID-19: Making a difference, togged in a PPE suit
Besides their ‘uniform’, the nature of their work makes swab collectors a conspicuous lot in the battle against COVID-19
“For the last 14 months, every working day, my shift has stretched much beyond the stipulated six hours,” says Latha (name changed).
There is more to the new routine, with the most noticeable part of it being putting on the PPE suit and continuing in it. It obviously does not make for comfort, only safety.
Latha is a lab technician on the payrolls of the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC), and her workaday life involves collecting swab samples at fever camps established in busy neighbourhoods and at randomly-chosen areas.
The second wave is stretching lab technicians, lab supervisors and non-medical lab technologists to the limits, as it does all others in the medical fraternity.
“Cases are on the increase and more samples are coming in. With low manpower, it is a challenge,” says Latha, who on an average puts in eight to nine hours at work.
Swab collection is an extremely responsible job.
- Tamil Nadu Graduate Medical Lab Professionals Association, which consists of lab technicians, lab supervisors, non-medical demonstrators and non-medical assistants, has sought greater appreciation from the State Government in terms of the steep challenges they face as they dispense their duty in these difficult times.
- “It is always doctors and nurses who are considered frontline workers. But we also play an important role. The mental and physical well-being of technicians must be given greater consideration,” says T Arun Kumar, the Association’s state general secretary.
- One of the representations made by the Association is that every technician be compensated with one week of leave for every week of work done.
- “We agree that there is a huge shortage of manpower, but arrangements have to be made for these technicians to recover from the long hours at work,” says Arun Kumar. “Currently, a majority of these professionals work all days of the week.”
- The Association members have also requested that they be provided with a vehicle to and from the workplace. “During monsoon, we have a tough time reaching our workplace and some arrangement must be made as work cannot suffer on any account,” says Arun Kumar.
- S. Balakrishnan, Association treasurer, says various district administrations have put up notification to recruit lab technicians on a temporary basis.
- “For instance, Greater Chennai Corporation recently issued a notification that it is hiring 100 lab technicians on an ad hoc basis. We need to see if these recruitments will ease the burden faced by our staff.”
“If the sample quality is not good, it will affect the PCR result, so we have to work with precision, and that entails making sure the patient cooperates with us while the swab is being collected,” says Latha.
Twenty-two-year-old S. Jeevitha is among the many temporary lab technicians roped in by GCC since the pandemic began. She visits homes and collect samples and has a target to meet every day. Based on information received from fever surveillance workers and health officials, they go for fieldwork.
“On an average, I have to take 80 samples a day. Though the time taken to collect a swab is 20-30 seconds, it requires some skill, especially where children are concerned,” says Jeevitha.
She takes pride in her work except that she hates to get inside the PPE suit. “We do not eat or drink till we remove the protective gown. I sweat badly with it and often get wheezing but my body has got used to it. I take utmost care to maintain a high immunity level,” says Jeevitha.
Inserting the 10-12 cm swab stick is not easy, as some can get angry with the lab technicians over this, and these hapless professionals will turn to the sanitary inspector for help.
“If there are 30 swabs to be done in a day, two-thirds of them are collected with our help as many do not take the swab test seriously, and so we have to coax them into being cooperative,” says M. Subathiya, sanitary inspector with Zone VII. The official adds that some need to counselled as they think they do not have the infection, and that it is only a case of ruling out that possibility.
According to the World Health Organisation, those collecting swabs must be given one week off after working seven days but a majority of the hospitals do not following this procedure due to staff shortage, say lab technicians. The demand to submit the report within a certain time frame is a burden on the staff. Before going to bed, Latha has a prayer on her lips:
“Let the number of COVID cases be lower than the previous day’s; let none of my colleagues fall sick; let me not have a long day at work.”