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Protecting workers from the heat at COVID-19 testing centers

(Signs posted at a U of U testing facility in Farmington. Credit: Meghan Thackery, KSL TV)

SALT LAKE CITY – The weekend’s heat wave is expected to bring dangerous temperatures all over the state.  The triple-digit heat is causing a lot of problems for workers in COVID-19 testing centers across Utah, but health officials are coming up with new ways to keep their employees cool.

COVID-19 testing in the heat 

In order to prevent the virus from spreading indoors, most COVID-19 testing facilities are outside.  People drive up to the nurses and lab technicians, get a nasal swab, then wait to get their results.  While the driver is sitting comfortably in their air-conditioned car, the workers are standing outside in the heat. 

University of Utah Ambulatory Senior Nursing Director Nikki Gilmore said the heat becomes nearly unbearable when you have to wear a plastic gown to keep you from becoming infected.

“Just imagine yourself outside, in 100 degrees, wrapped in Saran Wrap,” she described.

(Credit: Meghan Thackery, KSL TV)

Many things can go wrong in a testing facility when the workers get too hot.  Not only can they become physically sick, but Gilmore says they can easily get confused or disoriented.  If they want to keep body temperatures at a safe level, workers have to do more than just take a five-minute break and grab some water.

“It’s not enough just to stand in the shade for a minute.  That’s going to take your body temperature down just a couple of degrees.  You really have to go get in front of some AC and get some ice to really get your body temperature down,” according to Gilmore.

Keeping cool 

One of the most effective tools they have developed are the cooling vest workers can wear while they’re outside.  The vests are similar to what professional athletes wear in hot states like Florida.

“The cooling vests, they have ice packs in them.  They last about an hour and we’ve got ample supplies of ice packs so the staff can switch those out and change those out as we go,” explained the University of Utah Health Senior Director of Facilities and Engineering Jerry North.

On top of that, workers are required to take breaks every hour.  North said this is something most nurses and lab techs might not do unless they were required to.

“They want to keep going,” said North. ” They want to take care of our community and the people who are coming through these testing locations.”

North said they can’t place large fans inside the testing tents because they would spread the virus.  If the testing centers are still required in the winter, North said they’ll have to figure out ways to keep workers warm in the bitter cold.

 

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