Behind the Mask: Meet the first responders swabbing for COVID-19 in Fayette County

FAYETTE COUNTY, WV (WOAY) – They are firefighters, EMTs, and paramedics for Mt. Hope, and now they are at the forefront of a global pandemic.

When the Fayette County Health Department needed volunteers to do the swabbing for their drive-thru COVID-19 tests, the Mt. Hope Fire and EMS Team answered the call. 

David Homce is a firefighter and EMT with the department and said when he found out about this opportunity, he immediately volunteered.

“I mean, definitely in the back of your mind, you’re like consciously walking toward somebody that might have COVID-19 and you’re putting yourself out there, but we have the right PPE [personal protective equipment], we go through a 20-minute decon process, and we check each other before we go into any of the hot zones,” Homce said. “You feel pretty good. Just got to wash your hands a lot more.” 

As first responders, they are trained to adapt, but in unprecedented times, it has been quite the learning experience for these Mt. Hope EMTs and paramedics as swabbing someone for a contagious virus was not part of their skill set until last week.

However, they have accepted the challenge in stride knowing they have to keep calm as they know their patient is much more nervous than they are. 

“We try to talk to the patient and let them know what we’re doing and help them kind of count down as this is happening because it is not a comfortable procedure,” EMS Captain Raisa Wheeler said. “And it doesn’t help that we’re all suited up and you know, it’s a very different kind of environment.” 

And in this very different kind of environment, they are also tasked with making sure the swab gets to the tube with only one thing on their mind. 

“Don’t drop it,” Wheeler said. “Don’t drop it and don’t touch it.” 

The EMTs and paramedics switch places throughout the day. Two will be on swabbing duty while the others are responsible for paperwork, flu tests and making sure the right tests go in the right places.

While this might seem stressful and terrifying for some, paramedics like Chelsey Keathley say they are grateful for the experience and call it a privilege to gear up and lend a helping hand. 

“For the health department and Fayette County Emergency Department to recognize that we have this capability, and we can help, and we can be here and to want us here is a really good honor,” she said. 

These first responders tested 15 people on Friday at the Fayette County drive-thru testing site.

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Anna Saunders is a weekend reporter for WOAY. With a diploma from Princeton Senior High School and a mother from Fayette County, she is no stranger to the area. She received a degree in Media Arts and Design from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia and wanted to return home to start her career as a reporter.