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COVID-19: Three Abu Dhabi students join the frontline team to help with testing

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Abu Dhabi: Swathed in personal protective equipment (PPE), Sion Hau spends six days a week testing people for coronavirus.

She may just be a university student, but the 21-year-old has joined a dedicated team of frontline workers in the capital, willingly aiding efforts against the COVID-19 outbreak.

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“It was certainly challenging at first, and I was very cautious. But having done it for over a month now, I’ve learned how to carry out my tasks while remembering the broader context: This opportunity is helping me give back to a community that has been my home for the last three years,” Hau, who hails from Australia, told Gulf News.

Sion Hau

Hau is among three students majoring in Biology at the New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) who have been working at the specialised Pure Health testing facility in Mafraq Hospital for the past few weeks. They are part of teams at the laboratory that last month reported processing 35,000 samples a day.

More than four million tests

The UAE has one of the highest testing rates in the world, having recorded more than four million tests since the start of the outbreak. The contributions of frontline workers at labs such as Pure Health are at the centre of this effort.

The job certainly puts the students in close contact with the novel coronavirus, yet all the students said they were honoured to play their respective roles.

“I got to understand the immense progress the scientific community has made in learning about this virus within such a short span of time. Yes, we still have a lot to learn, but scientists have been able to sequence the entire genome of the virus, determine the genes specific to COVID-19 and create proper reagents to amplify the virus and test for it. Gaining so much information in a span of six months is absolutely insane,” said Ayham Adawi, 19, a Jordanian-Palestinian third-year student.

‘United, spiritually and mentally’

“On the other hand, I learnt how this pandemic has been able to separate us physically, but has united us spiritually and mentally. I didn’t grasp the extent to which people were working to fight this outbreak until I came to the lab and saw people working 16-hour shifts to ensure others’ safety,” he added.

Anique Ahmad, 23, a Pakistani national, said the experience helped him understand the value of testing in combatting the outbreak.

Anique Ahmad

“I have seen the results from thousands of tests performed in the lab, and can attest that regular testing and social distancing measures are bringing the total percentage of suspected cases down. And I believe it is important that people know this so that they can have confidence in our fight against this disease,” said Ahmad.

Despite all the on-the-job experience, it is not at all an easy assignment. Each of the three students often works more than eight hours a day in full PPE to handle the high workload.

Anxiety of work

“During a single shift, I was once able to amplify 9,000 samples for testing. But it does get very hot in the PPE,” Hau recollected.

They also stay at a hotel near the facility in order to ensure that they do not put community members at risk of COVID-19. Added to that, there is the anxiety that comes with working with a novel virus that has left millions infected across the world.

“At first, it was daunting both mentally and physically. There was a lot of work and I was worried about what might happen if I got COVID-19. However, as time went by, the community around me helped in easing the anxiety, especially as long as I followed the safety procedures,” Adawi said.

Hau said she had learnt to limit the amount of time spent handling samples for tests, and added that her colleagues had been especially helpful in helping ease the mental stress.

“I’ve been able to meet people from a number of different cultural backgrounds. And this gig has certainly showed me how much grit I have,” she added.

‘A globally defining moment’

Abdul Qadir, human resources director at Pure Health, said a lot was demanded of the students and from every individual who could contribute towards helping alleviate the sufferings from the COVID-19 outbreak.

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“As this is a globally defining moment, it will turn into one of those ‘what were you doing during the pandemic’ questions, and I’m proud to say that NYUAD, Pure Health and the Abu Dhabi Department of Health are trying to do as much as they can. The value of experience that these students are getting is not only going to polish their technical skills, but it’s also going to give them an edge going forward,” he said.

And keeping up with the massive test-and-trace initiative, authorities announced on Monday that the UAE was set to conduct another two million COVID-19 screenings over the next two months.

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