I’ll work at Covid test centre Christmas Day

Three women deployed to work in Cork’s Covid test centres talk to EMMA CONNOLLY about their jobs, family life, and making friends for life
I’ll work at Covid test centre Christmas Day

Elaine Mullane, left, who will be working on Christmas Eve and Day.

A SPEECH and language therapist, who was redeployed as a swabber in the Pairc Ui Chaoimh test centre, contracted Covid herself, which gave her a whole new empathy for her job.

Elaine Mullane graduated as an SLT in 2018 and since then has worked in the area of early intervention with the HSE.

In early March, volunteers were sought for redeployment to work as testers on the front line, and she went for it.

The 23-year-old felt that, given her age and the fact that she doesn’t have any kids, it was the right thing to do.

“That was on Thursday, March 19. By Sunday the 22nd I was being trained how to swab, and by Monday the 23rd I was doing it in Pairc Ui Chaoimh,” said Elaine.

There was very little time to think, she says: “But I do remember feeling anxious and a little frightened to be honest because at that stage, Covid was very new.”

After just her first day on the job though, she felt reassured by the strict measures in place, the availability of PPE, and the limited time they needed to spend at each car.

“I realised then that I wasn’t at any more risk than anyone in the community,” she said.

However, just a few short weeks later, Elaine fell ill, and tested positive for Covid herself. She didn’t contract it through her work, but through a house mate.

Elaine Mullane, a speech and language therapist who works at the Covid test centre in Cork.
Elaine Mullane, a speech and language therapist who works at the Covid test centre in Cork.

“I was actually back in my office in the Erinville, doing a half day’s work there, and as the day went on I started to feel very unwell and very drained.

“I was swinging between hot and cold so I went to a pharmacy for a thermometer, but they were sold out.

“I went home and my brother dropped one over and my temperature was sky high. A house mate had been coughing a few days earlier, another had been unwell, and we all tested positive the next day.”

For around three or four days, Elaine said she felt very unwell, like a bad dose of flu, with a shortness of breath.

“I’ll admit that I did feel quite scared for a few days.”

The fact her housemates were in the same situation helped, and one of them was an A&E nurse which was an added bonus.

In all, Elaine was off work for three weeks with Covid during which time she also lost her sense of smell and taste. Most days she felt so fatigued that she’d have to sleep for several hours in the afternoon. She was back for just one day when she was struck with a gastro issue, possibly related to Covid, and was off for a further week.

“When I was eventually back in action, I found I had more empathy for people who were being tested.

“I could see how daunting it must be, driving into the tunnel, seeing us all dressed in PPE. I saw it from the other side,” she said.

Speaking of the tunnel in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Elaine said it was absolutely freezing!

“This was March, it was so cold, but we learned to layer up with running leggings, fluffy socks, lots of long sleeved tops under the scrubs and the PPE!”

The weeks slipped by and swabbing became second nature to Elaine.

“You just got more confident, and more used to the anatomy, how it felt, and where to go,” she said.

When the testing centre in Páirc Uí Chaoimh closed during the summer, Elaine moved to the new facility in Blackpool, where she was promoted to a managerial position in recent weeks.

“I’m no longer swabbing but organising staffing duties, ordering food, supplies, PPE, that kind of thing. I’m one of five co-ordinators and I’m really enjoying it,” she said.

So much so, that Elaine volunteered to work on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, when they’ll offer a reduced testing service.

“I offered as I thought it’s probably the only year in my career that I’ll have to work on Christmas Day. In my work as an SLT I’ll never have to. Besides, I’ll still be able to drive home to my family in Cullen afterwards.”

She added: “Working here really brings out the best in people. Everyone has a real ‘can do’ attitude.”

Elaine especially wanted to mention Susan Lehane and Anne Marie Healy, public health nurses who were redeployed as coordinators in both Páirc Uí Chaoimh and Blackpool.

“They’ve both returned to their posts but they really took me under their wing and I’ll never forget their kindness.”

Elaine thinks she’ll be based in the testing centre for the foreseeable future.

“And even though it’s so far removed from what I was doing, I’m relishing the opportunity and I’ve made friends for life.”

Daphne de Coster, Physiotherapist
Daphne de Coster, Physiotherapist

STAYING CALM

THE gratitude of people who took a moment to say a simple ‘thank-you’ to her after their Covid test is the enduring memory that will stay with Daphne de Coster.

The paediatric physiotherapist was redeployed to the city’s swabbing centre in Blackpool during the second lockdown, and the experience is something that will stay with her.

Daphne moved here from San Diego in 2006 with husband Zola, in search of a change. They now live in Ballynoe, North Cork, with their 11-year-old twin boys, Armén and Román.

She works in Primary Care in Mayfield, with the early intervention team, dealing mainly with those under the age of six.

However, as there’s usually a slight seasonal lull in her workload in September, she decided to volunteer for redeployment to the centre, where she pitched in between three roles: a greeter (letting people know what to expect), a swabber (physically doing the test) and a swab collector (processing the test and getting it to the lab).

Naturally, at the outset, as would be the case in any new job, she said it was a little intimidating.

“But there was a great group of people there who were very supportive,” she recalled.

“And within a week of being there, we were comfortably doing all three roles.”

So many weeks later, she can still clearly remember her first swab: “The main thing was to show confidence, and of course we were strongly mentored.”

The regime saw her work 12-hour shifts (8am to 8pm), three days a week. And while the days were long, they were always interesting, she said.

Numbers coming through the centre varied widely, going from several hundred a day during peak times, but it was continuously busy.

“The main thing for us was to try to reassure people, and make things as calm as possible for them. 

"Of course, because of the contagious nature of Covid, we had to keep contact to as little as possible, so we got good at being calm, and efficient and getting the job done — all while smiling behind our masks,” said Daphne.

Fortunately, she never had to get a Covid test herself: “More than most, I’ll know what to expect. But all of us working in the centre were very careful and we stayed well, even though we were constantly exposed to the infection, which shows, I think, that it can be managed if people are careful and do the right thing.”

She appreciates that what she was doing to people wasn’t comfortable, which is why she was so taken aback by people’s gratitude.

Caoimhe Buckley describes her work as a clerical officer in the Lee Test Centre in Blackpool.
Caoimhe Buckley describes her work as a clerical officer in the Lee Test Centre in Blackpool.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE 

‘REWARDING’ is how young Mallow woman Caoimhe Buckley describes her work as a clerical officer in the Lee Test Centre in Blackpool.

The 28-year-old has been employed there since September, having previously worked in childcare and most recently as a nanny in Scotland.

“I had come home and was looking for work and looking for something different. and then Covid-19 hit,” said Caoimhe.

Never in her wildest dreams did she imagine that ‘something different’ would involve working in a testing centre during a global pandemic, but she’s relishing the role.

“I’m really enjoying it. I work within a small admin team which is part of the wider test centre team.

“We work well together with the common goal of providing an efficient service to the public.

“As a nanny, I’d have always worked alone so this is a welcome change and I’m really keen to do my bit where I can,” she said.

Her role is to book people in for Covid-19 tests who have been referred by their GP.

People’s reactions to her phone call can vary widely, she says.

“We are all aware that the thoughts of having a test can be stressful and sometimes people might be nervous about leaving the house and may need some reassurance,” she said.

It’s those exchanges, and the potential to make a real difference, that she is finding really rewarding.

“It’s good to be aware that you don’t know what might be going on for a person and I find that this helps me to be more sensitive during calls.

“I’m the eldest in my family, and have taken on the caregiver role, and that’s really standing to me in the job,” said Caoimhe.

She’s currently living with her mam, dad and a brother, with another in London and a sister in Dublin, and she’s looking forward to seeing them at some point soon.

But, given the intense nature of the work, it can be a bit of an ‘eye opener’ and ‘does hit home’ how serious the pandemic is.

“Personally, I’m looking forward to meeting them for a coffee or to enjoy a night out, when it’s safe to do so. Given the importance of the job we do, it helps to be working with such supportive people,” she says.

As an added bonus, Caoimhe says she’s expanded her social circle having made new friends through her work mates.

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