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Surge ‘frustrating’ for COVID testers

Exhausted. That is how many COVID-19 testers are feeling across Hawaii County as cases hit record-high numbers and hundreds are tested every day.

Premier Medical Group has been providing COVID-19 testing throughout the county since the onset of the pandemic.

While operations have changed over time, the goal has remained the same: to vaccinate and test as many people as possible.

“The need for testing has just multiplied by infinity,” said David Buck, Premier Medical’s Big Island COVID-19 operations manager. “At this point, with the case numbers where they are, there is no such thing as testing too much.”

Premier has been traveling countywide to vaccinate and test communities around the island. In the last couple of weeks, the demand for testing has drastically increased.

“The crew has been doing this for a year and half, and even through the slowdown in early summer,” Buck said. “Now, we are testing hundreds of people a day, and it definitely felt like a sudden change. It happened faster than any of us expected.”

Residents — vaccinated and unvaccinated — have been flocking to testing sites after getting symptoms or being exposed to the virus.

“There are a lot of symptomatic individuals, as well as people that have had first-hand exposure to COVID,” Buck said. “Because of the importance of timing with testing, when people test negative after being exposed, we try to encourage them to be tested again — especially if they are unvaccinated.”

While testing and vaccinating, Premier also is working to educate people about safe practices and how to alleviate any spread of the virus.

“We need to have more testing, but it’s even more important to make sure we’re educating everyone we’re testing,” Buck said. “If we don’t test thoroughly and make it a clinical experience, then it won’t help. We have to tell people how they should quarantine and what their next steps should be.”

Many clinics and primary care providers have not been offering testing to patients unless they are showing symptoms, which has caused long wait times at county testing locations run by Premier, KTA Super Stores and S&G Labs.

Earlier this month, Carla Martin and her family drove up to Premier’s testing site at Lokahi Park to see a long line in the hot sun.

Although they have been vaccinated, the Martins had to test for COVID-19 after their 10-year-old son’s friend had tested positive a few days prior.

“The school won’t allow my son to return to class until all three of us test negative for COVID-19,” Martin said. “This wouldn’t be a big deal if we could go to Urgent Care or our primary care physician, but I don’t want to spend hours in line waiting to be tested, especially since we are vaccinated and my son didn’t have direct contact with his friend.”

Eyan Chong joined Premier’s COVID-19 testing team after losing construction gigs at the onset of the pandemic.

“Some days are crazy, especially now with the community spread. It’s draining, but it doesn’t bother me,” Chong said. “People have been appreciative of the work we’re doing, and it makes me feel good to protect our community.”

Although Chong has been working 10 to 12 hour days for six days a week since joining Premier’s mobile testing and vaccination team, he is happy to be working for the well-being of the community.

“There are stressful, long days, but I think I speak for the whole team when I say it feels like we’re doing our part,” Chong said. “I was born and raised here, and I want the community to be safe and healthy.”

KTA has been providing mass drive-thru testing at Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays since Aug. 1.

On Thursday Aug. 19, they tested nearly 750 people.

“When we started testing, we were not expecting this amount of people at all,” Kerri Okamura, director of pharmacy operations said. “From the time we’ve started until now, there have just been so many more cases. When I saw the line (Thursday) it was just insane.”

About 20 individuals from KTA came out to the site to administer tests with help from the National Guard, Civil Defense, and other volunteers.

“A day of testing is exhausting, and very hot, of course,” Okamura said. “I think what is frustrating, though, is that we spent all these months getting people vaccinated, and now we have these huge case numbers. It’s difficult to handle.”

When they are able to, Okamura and testers with KTA take time to encourage vaccinations, especially since they are offering them at all their testing sites.

“People are coming to get a negative test for work, so especially in that situation, I try to strongly encourage getting a vaccine,” Okamura said. “I can’t imagine sitting in that line to get tested every week, especially when the simpler answer is to get the safe and effective vaccine.”

Okamura is trying to find more help since the pharmacy staff is stretched thin by drive-thru testing as well as operating KTA’s three Big Island pharmacies.

“This is actually grueling work, so we’re trying to staff up to spread the work out a little bit, because we still have our regular pharmacies where were are also giving COVID vaccines and gearing up for flu season,” Okamura said. “We’re glad to help the community, but I think we have to find a balance and think about the people working for us, working hard to get things done.”

As more people are required to be tested to return to work and school, the county has added more days to the current testing schedule.

S&G Labs is returning to Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium for its normal weekly schedule and will be providing testing from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Wednesdays and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays.

Rhian Serreira-Siesta has been swabbing noses and working on the front lines as a specimen technician with S&G Labs for the past year and a half.

“I honestly did not think I was going to be doing it for this long since the job I was originally hired for was temporary,” Serreira-Siesta said. “Working in the beginning was very hectic, but we’ve got everything down now, and it’s been easier.”

Before the pandemic, Serreira-Siesta was a full-time college student studying nursing. She was originally hired by S&G for urine testing, but her job quickly changed when COVID-19 hit Hawaii.

While Serreira-Siesta is happy many people are taking the initiative to be tested, it has become a lot of work with very little breaks in between shifts.

“I don’t have a break this week, and that can be very challenging sometimes,” Serreira-Siesta said. “Our numbers are very high, and I think we’re testing over a 1,000 people a week. It’s very hard work, but I like that people come down to get tested to make the community a better, safer place.”

After the pandemic wanes and the need for COVID-19 testing ends, Serreira-Siesta plans to go back to school full-time and continue working for S&G as a urine tester.

“These experiences have taught me a lot about the medical field in general,” Serreira-Siesta said. “I want to keep working at my degree and see what I want to do in the medical field.”

A calendar of county testing by Premier, KTA and S&G Labs can be found at bit.ly/HawaiiCOVIDtesting.

Email Kelsey Walling at kwalling@hawaiitribune-herald.com
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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