We met her several times over the past few months, on rainy days, sunny days, icy cold days, or damp days. Those waiting for their turn to take the Covid test, realize how the climatic adversities interfere in their physical state of discomfort. However, she always received each person as if it were the first time.
The tests that started in a properly protected space inside the Reynaldo dos Santos Building were soon moved to the garage, since the volume of people tested increased exponentially.
Since November 2020, the ritual has required her to wear personal protective equipment (PPE), to start testing the various members of the Faculty of Medicine who have had free access to periodic tests.
The long dark hair, in contrast to the fair skin, is hidden in the uniform that protects her from the feet to the head from the droplets and body fluids of people who can be potentially infected. As for Ana Catarina Laborinho, one can only see her eyes through two barriers that protect her, but they distance us from her smile and the heat that sometimes makes her to be quickly exhausted.
Diagnostic and Therapeutic Senior Technician in Clinical Tests and Public Health, Catarina Laborinho holds a Ph.D. in Physiology from FMUL’s Institute of Physiology, where she conducts research, collaborating on several national and international projects. She was invited to embark on this new Covid testing challenge by Isabel Aguiar, Director of Services at FMUL, who has ensured the general organization of these tests, under the guidance of the Clinical Pathologist, Professor Thomas Hanscheid.
On busy days, the line thickens up to the garage ramp. Isabel, who works at the place, sometimes controls the arrival order, separating the groups into two queues; row 1 for employees and lecturers, row 2 for students.
The process is quick for those who are going to be tested, but for those who have to stand in a full suit for two hours on a daily average, it is not easy to withstand the cold, or the heat, organizing people, swabs and information, always smiling. Always concerned with the well-being of those who come in and are going to be tested, who is the person behind the hermetic uniform that barely lets us see her?
How does the testing process work?
Catarina Laborinho: Antigen tests, developed for the diagnosis of SARS-CoV-2, aim to detect specific virus proteins produced in the respiratory tract. The technology involved is similar to that of a pregnancy test.
The procedure, simple and very easy to be carried out by qualified professionals according to the manufacturer's recommendations, essentially consists of a quick antigen test. It involves taking exudate samples, usually from the nasopharynx, using a suitable swab.
The samples are then placed in a specific buffer solution and the result is out in 15 minutes. Subsequently, negative and positive controls must be carried out to validate our work. All results are analysed and validated by the Clinical Pathologist, Professor Thomas Hanscheid, so that the respective disclosure can take place.
Was this procedure something you already mastered, or was it new for you?
Catarina Laborinho: This type of testing and procedure must be carried out by a specialized professional. My Degree in Clinical Tests and Public Health allowed me and my teammates to be well prepared to carry out this type of test. It involves procedures that we can easily adapt to, although they are not part of my laboratory routine.
How was it to spend the coldest months in a garage, constantly testing people? What happened to you inside the suit?
Catarina Laborinho: It was a different experience. There was some cold, yes, and some days were not easy, but with the procedure and this equipment I am wearing, I was rarely cold, normally I feel hot. Sometimes it is not easy, but it is not too hard because I do not spend many hours here. One to two hours per day. I think mainly of other health professionals who are in hospitals and homes, for example, since in fact they are our heroes. It is a pity that the population does not recognize their efforts and all the dedication they have shown, the hours dedicated to fighting the pandemic, the hours they have not been with their families.
I suppose that over these several months you have had some funny experiences.
Catarina Laborinho: I have had several funny situations, always involving some humour. I have met fantastic people, who otherwise I would not have come across, including students and staff. Sometimes I get some people who are afraid of being tested, of testing positive, or of the procedure, but I always try to create some previous empathy with the person I am going to test. I had a couple of complaints and had not even introduced the swab, but I understand that the test is not pleasant.
I try to ensure that this procedure is not painful.
In this period of contact with so many people, have you ever been afraid of becoming infected?
Catarina Laborinho: Yes, of course I was afraid. I was afraid especially at the beginning, when little was known about the virus, and essentially I have enormous respect for all who fight this pandemic. There is always some fear, because it is a disease about which there is still a lot to discover, with unknown medium and long-term effects.
I was essentially afraid that I could be a source of virus transmission, but we have always been very careful. We use the necessary personal protective equipment and comply with all safety protocols to avoid contagion.
On the other hand, as a health professional, I have to be where I am supposed to be in order to fulfil my duties. At this point, it would make no sense not to be doing my part.
This project has been very rewarding and has worked very well, because we are a fantastic team and we work very well together.