New Zealand’s latest Covid-19 outbreak has involved hundreds of health sector staff across the country enduring long, gruelling days of testing in an effort to contain the dangerous Delta variant. Amid a record-breaking week of testing in Tāmaki Makaurau, the Whānau Ora Community Clinics allowed the NZ Herald to talk to Covid-19 swabbers about their time on the frontline.
'The line went for miles'
Healthcare assistant Maxine Pulevaka is no stranger to testing surges.
The 39-year-old from Manurewa has been on the frontline for at least five surges since she started with Whānau Ora Community Clinics in September at its Mt Eden testing site.
However, she says this most recent rush for testing has been unlike anything she’s experienced, after it was revealed Covid-19 had infiltrated the community on Tuesday last week.
“This surge, I think it was more intense because of how quickly the locations of interest were being released,” she says.
“The first two days were the craziest … the line went for miles down the road, everybody wanted to get a test all at once.”
More than 150,000 Covid swabs were taken across Auckland since Wednesday – the most in any seven-day period.
About 60,000 (40 per cent) were done at community testing centres, which were quickly supplemented with extra staff as waves of Aucklanders arrived for their swab.
On a normal day, the total number of swabs taken across the three Whānau Ora community testing sites might not breach 200.
During the height of the surge, this increased by more than 1000 per cent to more than 2500 people.
Pulevaka was like many healthcare workers who had started work on Tuesday last week before 8.30am and didn’t clock off until as late as 11pm.
Queues stretched kilometres long, wreaking havoc with what little traffic was on the roads. Rain lashed swabbers and security staff.
People waited as long as 11 hours in line, with some even being turned away because of excess demand.
Inevitably, frustrations boiled over – and healthcare staff were often on the receiving end.
“We have come across people getting out of their cars and screaming at us ‘it’s taking too long’ or ‘this car was here after me’, things like that,” Pulevaka says.
“I think to myself, ‘you need to be on our side, it’s not easy’ … it might be a long wait but we’ve got to do all the mahi.”
Working in excess of 13 hours a day with little respite, Pulevaka – a mother of five – says it can be hard for whānau.
“I come to work, my kids are asleep, I come home and they’re sleeping because we finish so late at night.
“A lot of people here, this is their first surge and it’s really full on, and a lot of us have families, so a lot of time away … is hard.”
Nevertheless, she is endlessly positive and confesses she loves the surges because it brings out the values behind Whānau Ora healthcare.
“That’s all we do here, just try and help everybody out.”
'One extreme to another'
Sonya Temata’s journey to becoming a Covid swabber for Whānau Ora is far from conventional.
As Rarotonga’s emergency department charge nurse, Temata was part of select team transporting a critically unwell 5-year-old boy from the Cook Islands to New Zealand on August 12.
Five days later, New Zealand was sent into lockdown and Temata was stuck.
Incredibly, it’s not the first time Temata has been caught out by a lockdown.
When she returned to her ancestral home 17 months ago, the Cook Islands – like much of the world – was overrun by the virus’ initial global outbreak, so the nurse of more than 20 years stayed to help coordinate the recovery.
“It’s like deja vu; it’s like I never left,” Temata laughed.
“Coming from one extreme to another, it’s been full on.”
Temata – better known as Apa after her grandfather – is in the first generation of her whānau to be born in Aotearoa and worked across all three Auckland district health boards.
Finding herself back on New Zealand shores, Temata worked her old contacts and was welcomed with great enthusiasm by Whānau Ora.
Asked how being thrust into another Covid emergency had affected her, Temata shrugs it off as just one of those things.
“To be honest, it’s become a routine, it’s become part of my life.
“We’re severely short-staffed across the board, clinical and non-clinical support, so it’s nothing new.”
Recently, the Government has come under fire for lagging vaccination rates among Māori and Pasifika – two populations whose health is more threatened by the virus.
With decades of experience treating both communities, Temata believes communication of key vaccine information is essential.
“It’s about knowing it’s safe for us, so messaging around that is really important for Māori and Pasifika.
“It’s different to when you get the vaccination against rubella or the mumps because it’s been around for years and they know what it is.”
Temata, who is more experienced than most in battling Covid, says the sacrifices made by health staff deserve the highest recognition.
“We are putting ourselves on the frontline, putting ourselves at risk every single day and I have so much aroha for our colleagues.”
'I'll never forget'
When New Zealand was last in lockdown, nurse Belle De Leon worked from the comfort of her home.
Now, the 32-year-old from the Philippines is out on the frontline as the community testing clinical lead for Whānau Ora.
Spending last Tuesday at the Northcote testing centre, De Leon recalls how the morning progressed normally before news came in of Covid in the community.
“[There was] a couple of cars here and there and then at 3pm, okay there’s a positive case, there will be an influx.
“I was quite amazed with the staff, we were asking ‘who can stay’ and in an instant, everyone said, ‘yeah we can stay’.”
Before the surge, there would often be one or two swabbers servicing one lane of cars. This had to be quickly ramped up to five lanes of traffic in some places as staff flooded in to help.
Flexibility was the key in the first few days, as new problems arose. Stocks of water and snacks were rapidly delivered to ensure people were not left wanting during their wait.
“On the first day, people went to the queue with no food, nothing at all … because they didn’t have an idea.”
The respect De Leon has for her staff is written all over her face. Balancing workforce shortages, fatigue and whānau commitments, they dropped everything to help.
With testing demand slowing as this outbreak reaches its peak, De Leon says she will recount her experiences with pride to her future tamariki.
“This is one of the things that I think: I’ll never forget.”
“It is very exciting to be part of that history being on the frontline, I will tell my children, ‘Mum was part of that’.”
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