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As COVID-19 surges, swabbers carry on … and on … and on …

Karina Mendoza is a registered nurse who works full time swabbing at the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center.
Karina Mendoza is a registered nurse who works full time swabbing at the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

They have worked in tents, weathering the sweltering heat, lightning, and now snow. They’ve faced seemingly endless lines of sometimes frustrated and frightened people seeking COVID-19 tests. They are the ones who have had to tell people it may be days before they receive their results.

After more than nine months of COVID testing, the army of health care workers on the other side of those nasal swabs soldier on.

Their early fears of the coronavirus somehow sneaking in under their protective gear, and of possibly infecting family members, have lessened. Still, the menace is always there in the up-close encounters that are at once intimate and yet fleeting.

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For Karina Mendoza, a registered nurse who is working full time swabbing at the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, patients’ eyes never seemed so prominent. Now, she said, they’re hard to miss as so many nervous people pull down their masks for that swab to be inserted into their nose and twirled around.

“They are wide open, staring me down, and I don’t know if they hate me because I am doing this,” said Mendoza, 25, and just two years out of nursing school.

“Being so close really allows me to study their facial features,” she said. “There are many beautiful eyes out there.”

Another realization, she said, is just how many people with tattoos — who clearly chose to have needles repeatedly stuck into them — are queasy about submitting to a 10-second nasal swab. The East Boston health center is among many that have switched in recent months to shorter swabs inserted less than an inch, rather than the longer ones known as “brain ticklers” that go deep into the nasal cavity.

Through every test, one anxiety keeps ricocheting through Mendoza’s mind as she silently counts — One Mississippi, two Mississippi — the 10 seconds. Do not, she keeps telling herself, drop that swab afterward, or the test must be repeated.

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The number of slender swabs that have passed through her gloved fingers is numbing. Mendoza has averaged between 120 and 200 tests during an eight-hour day, five days a week. For months.

She and her colleagues speak of their adrenaline from earlier in the pandemic morphing into a grinding yet rewarding pattern, of continuing to be there, month after month, for the countless people seeking tests. The East Boston neighborhood has consistently notched some of the highest rates of positive tests in the city.

For Kelly Hennessy, director of testing at the East Boston health center, one steamy day from early August stands out. Nurses, wearing plastic gowns, face shields, and gloves, were drenched in sweat as they swabbed noses in a long line of people seeking tests in South Boston.

Suddenly, a man who had been tested about an hour earlier pulled up in a minivan crammed with ice cold bottles of water, sports drinks, granola bars, and a cornucopia of other snacks. He just wanted to say “Thank you.”

“The kindness was overwhelming,” said Hennessy, who was working at the mobile site that day.

Before the pandemic, Hennessy, Mendoza, and other nurses spent their days ministering to patients in busy community health centers, pharmacies, and medical practices. Now, they’ve been drafted to swab noses nearly full time and call patients who test positive in between swabbing shifts.

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“I am taking it day by day,” said Hennessy, 30. ”If you think too far in the future, it’s overwhelming.”

Hennessy loves to bake and share the goodies with family and friends. But she seldom has time now and hasn’t visited with anyone since the pandemic hit.

She and her husband don’t go out to restaurants or pretty much anywhere. They just stay home.

“We are exposed every single day,” Hennessy said. “That’s enough exposure for me. I don’t need to go out and take any more risk.”

As hordes of other residents lined up before Thanksgiving for tests, then headed out to visit friends and family, Hennessy and Mendoza said they were not resentful, just deeply frustrated that more people clearly weren’t following guidelines for social distancing.

Now, another holiday is approaching and the crowds — along with another spike in infections — are expected to return. Again.

The East Boston center’s one last outdoor testing site, in the neighborhood’s Central Square, is folding up its tents for the winter and heading to an empty warehouse in Hyde Park for a drive-through version. The center also has instituted an appointment system, to reduce the lines.

But because all the warehouse doors will be open, swabbers will still be pummeled with gusts of cold air. They will don head-to-toe Tyvek suits, made from the material construction workers use to insulate houses, that is warmer than the plastic gowns they used in the summer. They will crank up portable space heaters and hope for the best.

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Other sites have also recently switched to a cold weather model, with testing indoors.

At DotHouse Health center in Dorchester, where swabbers have tested up to 200 people a day, there aren’t appointments. It’s first come, first served, with workers handing out slips when the doors open every morning to let each person in line know when to return that day for an indoor test.

That’s created more than a few difficult conversations for those who have lined up but get shut out for the day.

“Many of our patients come after working all night. Others have to leave a minimum-wage job to get tested,” said Jeanette Dong, 29, a registered nurse at the Dorchester center.

Dong said she tries to encourage people who fall short of a test one day to come back the next morning. Swabbers have helped ease frustrations — and hunger among many of those lining up in Dorchester — giving away occasional gift food baskets, masks, and hand sanitizers.

“There are times when I feel defeated and really tired and exhausted,” Dong said. “But at the end of the day, knowing I am doing the best I can, it gives me energy and motivation to come back.”


Kay Lazar can be reached at kay.lazar@globe.com Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.