Local 298 Health Professionals Among Thousands of Council 93 Members on the Front Lines of Covid-19 War

As an Environmental Health Specialist in the City of Manchester, NH, there's not much in the public health arena that Local 298 member Karen Sutkus hasn't seen or done.

In the course of her 17-year run working for the city's health department, Sutkus has assisted in the set-up of emergency shelters during natural disasters; helped to rid the city's parks and streets of dirty needles; conducted health inspections of restaurants, foster care providers and public swimming pools; and much more. "It's always something different, but we're always ready for it," she says calmly.

But the COVID-19 Pandemic has placed Sutkus in what is perhaps, the most important role of her career. For the past two weeks, she's been part of a small team of public employees responsible for staffing a drive-up testing site in Manchester, the state's largest city. The group, which includes AFSCME school nurses and public safety personnel, are working tirelessly to screen healthcare professionals, and a limited number of residents sent from their physicians, for the deadly coronavirus.

Sutkus serves as the first point of contact for people as they line up for the diagnostic test. Using a combination of paper forms and a phone app, she obtains critical information from each person, including their current medical condition; recent travel history; and other vital data aimed at tracking and reducing the spread of the virus. While most people are sheltering safely in the confines of their home, Sutkus estimates that she and other Local 298 members working at the site have had direct contact with upwards of 800 people who have lined up for testing. That number increases every day.

Still, Sutkus remains calm and focused. "This is what we are called to do. This is what we are trained to do. It's our time to step up," she says. Fortunately, unlike so many healthcare workers around the country, Sutkus has had the benefit of an adequate supply of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) and she remains hopeful and optimistic that the city will be able to continue to secure the PPE they need to keep workers as safe as possible.

Local_298_Lisa_Keefe20200401170810Once Sutkus completes the initial intake and does her best to put people at ease, she moves them down the line for testing. That's where people like Lisa Keefe (Pictured Left) step up. One of 23 AFSCME Local 298 school nurses that have been shifted to new roles since schools have been shut down, Keefe is responsible for administering the nasal swab test required to detect the virus. Like Sutkus, Keefe exudes the calm of an experienced pro as she describes the work. "We start by verifying their name, date of birth and current address and explain exactly what we are going to do in terms of the test while trying to keep them as relaxed as possible," said Keefe, who has worked as a middle school nurse for the past 18 years. "We give them all the information they need for post testing behavior, including self-isolation practices."

Keefe explained that testing is done in two-person teams with one person providing information, while the other, protected by PPE, conducts the swab. The person being tested never leaves their vehicle. Team members switch roles throughout the day as they change and sanitize the PPE, which continues to be in short supply around the country.

"The important work being done by Karen and Lisa on the front lines of this fight is truly incredible and just one of thousands of examples of the vital contributions AFSCME members are making every day throughout New England and across the country," said Council 93 Executive Director Mark Bernard. "The work at this one testing site alone will make a significant difference in ongoing efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and therefore, will ultimately save lives."

A past union leader in the City of Boston, Bernard knows firsthand about the important and difficult work of public health professionals like Sutkus and Keefe, having worked as a health inspector in the city and surrounding communities for more than a decade before joining the staff of Council 93.

Prior to becoming a school nurse, Keefe worked for many years in a hospital setting, experience she says has helped her to remain calm and hit the ground running in her new role. "I have a long history of working in an emergency room, we would do nasal swab testing for the flu virus all the time and as far as being safe, I know that as long as we follow CDC safety protocol we will be fine."

In addition to working at the testing site, Keefe noted Local 298's school nurses are also staffing public health hotlines, answering questions and guiding concerned residents to appropriate care and information.

Sutkus, who serves as a steward for her Local, says the backing Local 298 has received both from her employer and her union has made this difficult time a lot easier. "We've had great leadership and support from the city," she said, "and the union has been great. We've heard from our Local President Dennis Bourgeois and Council 93 staff several times – on everything from adjusting our schedules to just making sure we are ok."

Bourgeois expressed pride for all members of his local for their "courage and dedication" as they continue to work, noting that Local 298 public works employees such as trash collectors are still on the job too. Of course, his pride is mixed with concern. "They're on my minds constantly so I'm communicating with them as often as I can to make sure they're ok and have what they need," Bourgeois said. "Most people have no idea what our members are facing. They're not just putting themselves at risk, but their families too. But these are our jobs and we need to do our jobs right now. I hope this crisis comes quickly to an end but until it does, we will be there."

Going forward, Keefe is urging the public to remain vigilant and expresses concern that too many members of the public are ignoring the social distancing recommendations of professionals. "Ignorance and a lack of respect for other human beings is what spreads this virus," It's sad, but I think we have a long way to go."

When asked what advice she would give to the public or say to people who may be dealing with anxiety at home, Sutkus relayed a quote she said she heard over the past few weeks. "I would say try to remember you are not stuck at home, you are safe at home," she said. She added that people can still find ways to help while taking the appropriate cautions. "Maybe it is going to the grocery store for an elderly neighbor - or simply calling them to check in. People can stay safe and still rise up, simply by asking the question, how can we help each other out?"