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MSIH Student Iris Kamenev Volunteers at a Negev COVID-19 Testing Center

by Iris Kamenev (pictured doing home test visit)

It started with a story. Something on the news, far away; it would never concern us all the way over here. A different country, a different people. Irrelevant to our daily lives of walking to class, studying in the library, and sitting on the grass outside the hospital to soak up the post-winter sun.

The world changed quickly, but gradually enough that the new normal glided in rather smoothly. First, it was the online classes with Zoom lectures, and who could complain about getting to stay in your pajamas all day? Then the cuts to public transportation, followed by the restrictions on how far you could be from your home. 100 meters is fine, I never got out much anyway…

As the current new rules and regulations pull the drawstring of our lives tighter and tighter, the only excuse I found to be out legally is volunteering at the Corona testing center the city has set up in the Bedouin shuk (market).

Drive in testing center at the Bedouin Market

It’s arranged like a drive-in; you can almost imagine as if you’re going to see a movie in the ‘50s as you pull up (rather than getting a stick shoved down your throat). How it works is that people get messages if they are thought to have recently been at high exposure risk. They are then given a time by MDA (Magen David Adom – Israel’s 911) to come to the drive-in center to be tested.

The whole thing consists of a few tents – six drive-in lanes – and is mainly run by a couple of MDA staff and medical student volunteers. Each lane generally has two fully geared volunteers and a soldier. A car will pull up and the masked soldier scans the patient’s ID through the window and prints out a few stickers with their information. Then the car will pull forward a few more feet, the patient will roll down their window, and one volunteer does a quick nasopharyngeal swab while the other sticks a patient’s label on a vial in which the swab will be deposited, another on a biohazard ziplock, and one on a box specific to the patient’s kupat holim (insurance provider).

Within minutes, a swab has been taken from the patient’s throat and nose, placed into a vial, which is placed into two biohazard bags and into a Styrofoam box with other samples, and the car has already driven off, the next one queued up to be checked.

There is a separate tent where volunteers gear up before going into the lanes, easily discernible because everyone walks out looking like they’re about to climb into a space shuttle.

First to go on is the mask, then gloves, followed by the full body suit with the hood that must cover your entire forehead (not a strand of hair in sight), another set of gloves, then a long vest that goes over everything, the face shield, and a final third set of gloves.

It’s stuffy and hot underneath it all; I feel like a penguin stuck in the tropics as I waddle into my station. The air inside the mask tastes stale, and if you didn’t brush your teeth immediately before putting it on, it won’t be a pleasant experience.

Still, on slow days the soldiers will sometimes play music, and we’ll all dance around in the empty lanes, looking like chubby aliens bumbling around with no sense of rhythm. We try to sing, but the sound is muffled beneath the mask and the shield.

While we wait to rotate out other volunteers, we sit in a separate tent and eat snacks, drink coke, and talk about our studies as if we’ve been doing this all along, as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened to disrupt our regular medical school routines.

It’s amazing how quickly your mind can adjust to a new reality. Even as everyone around you walks by clad in masks and gloves, with the smell of antiseptic alcohol lingering in the air. Even as a cashier takes your temperature in line outside the grocery store, and panically declares that it’s too high, ordering you to leave. Even as you pull on protective equipment as if you’re traipsing off to West Africa to fight Ebola. Even then, you can still dance to Despacito for the thousandth time with a smile on your face.


Iris Kamenev is a MSIH student currently finishing up her first year of studies. She is from the United States.

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