Volunteer response key to success of COCID-19 pop-up test sites


WE ARE THE ONES WE’VE BEEN WAITING FOR. Lauren Mills proves it every day, as do the hundreds more who volunteer to make COVID-19 pop-up test sites a runaway success in Nova Scotia.

Lauren lives in downtown Halifax. When she heard the call for volunteers to work at COVID-19 pop-up test sites she signed up right away. She’s been putting in a few hours at a pop-up site in the Halifax Convention Centre clinic every day since February 26.

Lauren swabs the noses of at least 25 people each shift. “At first, you’re a little nervous,” she says, “but it’s very straightforward. Anybody can do it.” Hundreds of other Nova Scotians are doing the same at pop-up sites all across the province.

'People take it and own it'

Almost everyone working at the sites is a volunteer, including the greeters, people at the registration desk, swabbers, and those who test the swabs and text out results are all volunteers.

The rapid pop-up testing, relying on the help of non-experts, is the idea of Dr. Lisa Barrett, a Dalhousie University infectious disease specialist, physician, and researcher.

“I love the fact people take it and own it,” Barrett says. “There’s not a lot of difference between the people running the event and the people coming in to get tested. They are the same groups of people. I’m very excited and I hope we can extend this further, so people don’t think of things related to health like this test as something that’s not theirs. This is theirs to own.”  

Stay to volunteer

There are about 1,500 volunteers on the list to help just at the downtown Halifax site. Some people who get tested at the site sign up to volunteer on their way out.

“I thought we’d see fewer people over time volunteering to be involved,” Barrett says. “We really haven’t seen that. People have been very keen to stay as volunteers and stay engaged. It has definitely exceeded my expectations.”

New volunteers have to arrive to the site about an hour and half before their shift starts to get some training. At the convention centre site, there can be about 100 volunteers every day, depending on how busy it is. Some of the volunteers have been helping out since the first events in November. About half of the volunteers at any given event are new.

Stress free

There is music playing at the convention centre site. Barrett says that a relaxed, social atmosphere is a “backbone” of the testing sites. She says they are as much community events as medical clinics.

People coming in to get tested don’t have to have a health card. There’s a lot of small talk and joking around, and a relaxed environment that really lowers stress on people, compared with a formal “medical” environment.

Lauren says it’s all very social: everyone smiles and says thank you. “I used to bartend so this is a lot like bartending, but there are no tips,” she laughs. “We’re just doing our part. It feels good.”

Getting a test done is not a stand alone thing, says Barrett. She says the goal is to have people see it as just one part of an overall “safer COVID living plan.”

People helping people

Richard MacDonald, manages and recruits volunteers for pop-up clinics organized by Praxes Medical Group. He says close to 1,000 volunteers across Nova Scotia have signed on to help at those sites.

MacDonald says when he’s organizing a pop-up, he looks for a local champion, like a radio personality or a mayor, to help recruit volunteers.

“These people are so happy to come and volunteer their time,” MacDonald says. “Without the volunteers, we would not be able to process the amounts of numbers we get when we are busy. We truly never know how many people are going to come through the door.”

“It’s really pretty rare when you think about it,” says MacDonald “The people from the public being tested by other people from the public. Part of the model has shown you can quickly train someone that has no medical background to do something that was normally a load on the healthcare system.”

More proof that when we are looking to someone to count on, the best place to start is always with ourselves.

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