Nova Scotia

Meet some of the volunteer COVID-19 testers who have 'stepped up like crazy'

Many of the people sticking swabs up noses at rapid testing sites are not paid health-care workers, but volunteers.

Many of the people sticking swabs up noses are not paid health-care workers, but volunteers

Sonya Fournier volunteers at test sites around the Halifax area multiple times a week. (Submitted by Sonya Fournier)

As COVID-19 cases surge across the province, many Nova Scotians have taken public health messaging to heart and gone for testing.

Hundreds of thousands of swabs have gone up noses to date, but the mass testing could not function without the 2,500 volunteers behind the masks and face shields. 

One of them is Harriet Wright, a fourth-year health promotion student at Dalhousie University. 

She got involved with rapid testing when she saw a post on Instagram in December. She started as a volunteer tester, and now works as the volunteer co-ordinator for Praxes Medical Group, a company that runs some of the rapid testing sites in the province. 

"I think it's just kind of my duty to ensure that people are getting tested and having access to it, so we can take that burden off the actual front-line [medical] workers," Wright said.

Harriet Wright, a fourth-year health promotion student at Dalhousie University, prepares to give Premier Iain Rankin a COVID-19 test. (Submitted by Harriet Wright)

There are multiple "pop-up" testing locations across the province each day. Swabs are tested on site, and people receive their results within two hours. If a test comes back positive, the person is sent for a standard COVID-19 lab test. 

Each site has between five and 25 volunteers working at a time, depending on demand. 

Anyone can volunteer to swab and test. No medical background is required, and the training can take as little as 20 minutes. A new volunteer must practise swabbing on 10 people before starting with the public.

Lately, the rapid test sites have been experiencing massive turnout, and Wright said they have been seeking more volunteers.

"On the weekend, we needed volunteers so badly we were pulling people out of the lineup and training them to swab on site," Wright said. "But this is a positive thing. The community is responding so well."

Amelia White, 17, is one of the youngest volunteers at COVID-19 test sites. (Submitted by Amelia White)

Amelia White, 17, is in Grade 11 at Halifax West High School. She owns a cake-decorating business with her sister and works as a lifeguard.

But she volunteers as a rapid tester on weekends. She is one of the youngest volunteers, and said people are always surprised to see her working. 

"I like being the youngest person there," White said. "I feel like I'm really showing other teenagers that they can help, instead of partying and hanging out with more people than they're allowed."

White said she is busy, and has to fit in her homework around her volunteer work, but she thinks she is inspiring others. 

"When they come in [to get tested] and they see that I'm a teenager, they're like, 'Wow, good for you.'"

White said her parents were nervous for her safety at first, being around so many people who could potentially be COVID-positive, but now they are proud of her.

She said she feels safe with all the personal protective equipment she wears and the stringent sanitization measures at test sites. 

Volunteers work at a testing site in Nova Scotia. (Submitted by Harriet Wright)

As the volunteer coordinator, Wright says she uses her social media daily to try to attract more volunteers. 

She also posts on Instagram about test site locations and times, and dispels myths about testing. 

She says Public Health posts this information on their website and advertises online, but she knows this information cannot always be accessible or easily understood.

"A lot of people get their information and news from Twitter and Instagram, especially people in the younger generation," Wright said. "So it's a really great way to reach a larger population."

Wright said many of her peers see her posts and ask her how they can get involved or get tested. 

"In the past week or so, we've tested thousands of people," she said. "And I think a lot of that is because people are seeing it advertised on different social media platforms, including my own Instagram."

Fournier, 48, started volunteering in December as a way to give back to her community. (Submitted by Sonya Fournier)

Sonya Fournier, 48, started volunteering in December as a way to give back to her community. She volunteers at test sites around the Halifax area multiple times a week when demand is high. 

Though a majority of the volunteers were originally university students, Fournier said there is a more diverse range of ages starting to show up to help.

She said the rewards outweigh any risks and the experience has made her want to take up more volunteer work after the pandemic. 

"I almost cried this morning, when I looked at the list and there were so many volunteers," Fournier said.

"We worked a couple [shifts] where … you're desperate to get anybody in to come and help. And people in Nova Scotia are phenomenal. They've stepped up like crazy."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nicola Seguin is a multi-platform reporter based in Kjipuktuk (Halifax). If you have a story idea, email her at nicola.seguin@cbc.ca.

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