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A day in the life of a COVID-19 tester in South Carolina, where new cases surged to a record-breaking daily high this week

A day in the life of a COVID-19 tester in South Carolina, where new cases surged to a record-breaking daily high this week
  • COVID-19 cases have surged in South Carolina since its reopening in late April, and in recent weeks the state has increased it's testing efforts.
  • Vaidehi Gajjar is one of the frontline workers working to bring more testing to the hard-hit area of Columbia, where she's been working as a COVID-19 tester since early June, on top of her regular job in hospital administration.
  • While she knows she's putting her life on the frontlines, Gajjar says she enjoys the work because she sees it as her way to help and protect her community.

While COVID-19 cases have decreased in previously hard-hit areas like New York, they are increasing in other areas of the country, like South Carolina, which recently reported a record daily high of 1,291 new cases on June 24.

The state is quickly becoming a new COVID-19 hot spot after its stay at home order expired May 4 and reopening began on April 20. While the recent surge in cases could be attributed to the increased amounts of testing, not all cities in South Carolina have mandated masks and socially distant reopening guidelines.

Vaidehi Gajjar is a COVID-19 tester in South Carolina, and has been working at testing sites since June 2. Business Insider spoke to Gajjar about how the increased spike in COVID-19 cases has impacted her role as a healthcare worker.

Here's a look into how Gajjar is spending her days through this pandemic.

Gajjar wakes up around 6:15 a.m., takes a shower, eats breakfast, and heads over to the testing site by 8 a.m.

Gajjar wakes up around 6:15 a.m., takes a shower, eats breakfast, and heads over to the testing site by 8 a.m.
Gajjar’s work clothes as a COVID-19 tester. Vaidehi Gajjar

Gajjar says she never would have imagined she'd serve on the frontlines of a global public health crisis. As a patient services representative, her typical day-to-day job involves working with patients pre-admission as well as during admission, transfer, and discharge from the hospital.

In the hospital at the onset of the pandemic, she saw firsthand what patients and their families were going through. So when her boss approached her with the opportunity to work as a COVID-19 tester, she immediately accepted, and was eager to take more direct action to help.

"Having the experience working with patients in the hospital, I want to use my expertise during this pandemic, especially since testing sites are understaffed," said Gajjar.

In her patient services job, Gajjar's shifts are from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on two weekdays, and 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. on the weekends. On her other work days, she's on the COVID-19 testing shifts, usually from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. She enjoys meeting new coworkers and being challenged by the daily changes of the pandemic.

"I've learned to be more compassionate and understanding as I'm working with patients from all walks of life whose lives have dramatically changed due to the pandemic," Gajjar said. "As healthcare workers, you can't treat patients as statistics, you need to understand the faces and situations of the people that you are serving."

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Once Gajjar arrives at the testing site, she's usually there until 3:30 p.m.

Once Gajjar arrives at the testing site, she's usually there until 3:30 p.m.
A COVID-19 testing site at a local church in Columbia, South Carolina. Vaidehi Gajjar

Gajjar's testing schedule varies every week, and she has worked at a different testing site with every shift. Testing takes place at various sites around Columbia, mostly in tents set up outside of local schools, community centers, and churches. Gajjar always works at a free, state-sanctioned COVID-19 testing site where all patients are treated by drop-in appointments. When she arrives for her shift, Gajjar puts on a disposable mask, face shield, and a neon-colored vest to identify herself as a COVID-19 testing staffer.

In the morning, Gajjar and her coworkers get to work immediately by setting up traffic signs to direct patients to the testing site. They also restock tents with PPE for the clinical team, and then onboard any new testing staff members.

Gajjar has new patients fill out paperwork detailing their medical history, and prints important identifying details on a sticker label that she delivers to the clinical team right before they give the patient the swab test from the car window.

"I understand patients are scared they will test positive, and knowing this, I do my best to spread positivity and reassurance in this uncertain time," Gajjar said.

The testing site closes each day at 3 p.m. Gajjar and her team then begin the cleaning process by disposing of any used PPE, sanitizing all surfaces, filing away paperwork, and disassembling any tables and chairs used in the tents.

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After a busy shift, Gajjar gets off work and heads home for the day around 4 p.m.

After a busy shift, Gajjar gets off work and heads home for the day around 4 p.m.
Driving home after a long day of work. Vaidehi Gajjar

The drive home can take as long as an hour, depending on how far that day's COVID-19 testing site is from Gajjar's home. But she enjoys the long drive as time to listen to music and feel a cool breeze inside her car after a busy day under the hot South Carolina sun.

"There's a sense of fulfillment driving back home exhausted with your favorite music on full blast, because every achy muscle and every stiff limb is a reminder that you made a difference today," Gajjar said.

Once she gets home, she disposes of her face mask and immediately jumps into the shower.

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If she's not too tired, Gajjar cooks herself something delicious for dinner.

If she's not too tired, Gajjar cooks herself something delicious for dinner.
Homemade chili paneer stir fry made by Gajjar. Vaidehi Gajjar

Although Gajjar was never an avid restaurant goer, the pandemic has brought out her culinary creativity and an opportunity to embrace her Indian heritage.

With time to experiment and attempt new recipes at home, she's enjoyed cooking traditional Indian and Indian-inspired foods, including paneer tikka masala, chole bhature, and "naan-style" pizza. On days when she's too tired to cook, Gajjar will opt for a frozen meal or order takeout.

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In the evenings and in her free time, Gajjar loves to write, and has been writing more frequently since the pandemic hit.

In the evenings and in her free time, Gajjar loves to write, and has been writing more frequently since the pandemic hit.
Gajjar's short story was recently published in an anthology ebook. Vaidehi Gajjar

When she is not busy serving patients, Gajjar loves to write. Her work has been published in the Washington Post's The Lily, HuffPost, Yahoo Lifestyle, and other online magazines. She recently became a published author with a short story in the online anthology "Two Worlds: What We Wish We Knew Growing Up" that came out in June. As a side gig, she is an editor at Brown Girl Magazine, where she oversees the health and human rights beat.

Gajjar enjoys writing about breaking the stigma around mental health. From personal experience, she understands the lack of acknowledgement around mental health in her own South Asian community and wants to be a part of the force driving change to rewrite the narrative on mental illness.

"Writing allows me to take a step back from the frenetic scenes happening in front of me during the pandemic, and remind myself that self-love and self-reflection are necessary to take care of my mental health," Gajjar said.

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Gajjar also stays virtually connected to friends, and is making new ones through virtual podcasts, panels, and live chats.

Gajjar also stays virtually connected to friends, and is making new ones through virtual  podcasts, panels, and live chats.
Gajjar as a guest on Emelie Samuelson’s weekly Instagram Live “Teach Me Something Series” doing an eyeshadow makeup tutorial. Vaidehi Gajjar

As a frontline worker, Gajjar has been socially distancing herself and has barely seen anyone outside of her quarantine pod of family members. As a result, she's been determined to participate in more virtual events.

She's joined Emelie Samuelson's Awkwardly Alive & Pleasantly Peculiar Blog's Instagram Live series, been a panelist on What's Your Story: Conversations in Mental Health presented by Dr. Varun Gandhi and collaborators, and a guest on the Dear Asian Americans podcast.

She recently appeared on live television with TV ASIA USA twice — once for a South Asian Artists panel, and again to talk about the legacy and passing of late actor Irrfan Khan.

"It's important to acknowledge that the current situation is tough," Gajjar said. But through serving patients on the frontlines and staying virtually connected to friends and family, I am redefining my social interactions, which has allowed me to cultivate an even bigger appreciation for my community."

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COVID-19IndiaCases: 849kDeaths: 22.6kRecovered: 534k
COVID-19WorldCases: 12.32MDeaths: 556kRecovered: 6.98M
COVID-19USACases: 3.09MDeaths: 132kRecovered: 995k