COVID-19 swab test offers peace of mind to home health care workers in Novato

The COVID-19 test, swirling a swab high in the nostril, is not a pleasant sensation, but worth it, said dozens of caregivers who streamed in for testing Friday in Novato. 

"Oh my God," gasped Molly Bray, as a public health nurse finished probing her nose.    

"I would do it no matter how painful, but it was a little uncomfortable," Bray said afterward. "I take care of an elderly woman so it would be good to know I don't have it." 

San Francisco is among several jurisdictions planning to test all staff and patients at every nursing home. 

Almost half of California's COVID-19 deaths are in assisted living environments. 

That's why Peter Rubens, founder of At Home Caregivers, has been pushing to get his employees tested. 

"I think the situation is fraught with a lot of fear, everybody's concerned, nobody wants to get anybody sick," said Rubens, greeting workers who came to be tested. 

He has seen no illness yet, among workers or clients. But rising case numbers prove that locking the doors at assisted living centers does not keep the virus out. 

His employees move among private homes, and congregate settings. 

"It's just so devastating to see infection rage through an assisted living facility," said Rubens. 

Sixty of his caregivers, about half his staff, signed up to be screened in the garage of his Novato headquarters. 

"It's free, our company is providing it, and I'm really glad to be getting it done," said caregiver Tracy Newman, who assists three seniors in one home. 

"They were laughing, and saying 'You know you don't have it,'" said Newman, who wants reassurance she's not putting them at risk. 

Some of the caregivers took the time to park, others were tested in the driver's seat, and hurried back to their patients. 

"Be tested and be done with it, the best way to be sure you are not a carrier," said caregiver Jordan Emev, who tends to an elderly man in Mill Valley. 

Other caregivers brought their patients with them, so they could be tested too. 

"It's a little bit scary, something new," said caregiver Mitieli Moce, transporting his wheelchair-bound patient to the site. "But I'm glad that I'm there to assist those who need help, who need care."      

Many of the caregivers spend more time in their client's homes than their own. 

"They become part of the family," said Jeff Isotalo, describing his family's relationship with caregiver Kay Uilakepa.

Uilakepa cares for Isotalo's 83-year-old mother Sue, who is disabled by Parkinson's Disease.

"Oh she's so sweet, it's more like a mom, I treat her like my mom," said Uilakepa. 

Both caregiver and son took advantage of the opportunity to be tested. 

"There are lots of stories about nursing homes and facilities having outbreaks and people dying," said Isotalo, "and the home caregiver was kind of overlooked as far as what they need."  

Results will take a few days, and any employee who tests positive will receive full pay to isolate for two weeks.

"I feel like we're finally on the offense here," said Rubens. 
"Instead of reacting to outbreaks and hot spots, we're actually being pro-active." 

He appreciates the concern his employees have for their clients. 
"These are our friends, these are people we've gotten to know and love."