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Czarina Santiago and Allie Zarcone
Nurses Czarina Santiago and Allie Zarcone work at the COVID-19 Assessment Centre at Hamilton Health Sciences’ West End Clinic to test people for the COVID-19 virus, by appointment.
April 13, 2021

Making a difference one swab at a time

On March 16 2020, just days after the World Health Organization declared a worldwide pandemic, a COVID-19 Assessment Centre was opened at Hamilton Health Sciences’ (HHS) West End Clinic. The centre tests individuals who meet the criteria for COVID-19, by appointment.

“When I found out the COVID-19 Assessment Centre would be coming to the building, I was looking forward to helping where I could during such uncertain times,” says Allie Zarcone, a registered practical nurse at HHS’ West End Clinic, the site of the Assessment Centre. “I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit scared, but I was willing and volunteered to pick up as many hours as I could.”

Zarcone, who has worked at HHS since 2011, and colleague Czarina Santiago, who has worked at HHS since 2015, have been working as charge nurses at the Centre since the start.

Early days of testing

COVID-19 nasal swab

COVID-19 nasal swab

The Centre is a joint effort by Hamilton Health Sciences, St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton (SJHH), Hamilton Public Health Services, primary care physicians and the Ontario Ministry of Health to help safeguard and support the health and wellbeing of people in our community. It is currently one of three Assessment Centres in Hamilton.

When the Assessment Centre opened at the start of the pandemic, there was a limited supply of COVID-19 tests so resources were focused on testing those who showed symptoms or had travelled recently. “Not all patients got a swab which brought its own challenges,” says Zarcone.

The duo’s responsibilities included assessing vitals, training nurses in swabbing practices, asking patients a series of questions to determine if they were eligible for testing, providing instructions on self-isolation, swabbing patients, answering questions, and calling patients to report negative results.

Testing children for COVID-19

Zarcone and Santiago swab most of the kids in the centre.

“The nasopharyngeal swab can be a challenging experience for kids,” says Zarcone. “I make sure all the nurses are skilled and patient with children and their families while respecting and understanding how scary the procedure can be.”

Santiago agrees having patience is necessary to swab children who are scared. It also takes effort and support from the families, she says. “I try my best to make the patients feel as comfortable as possible. Having stickers, treats and giving lots of praise after always helps.”

Fast-paced environment

Allie Zarcone

Allie Zarcone

“A day in the Covid-19 Assessment Center is a fast-paced, non-stop line from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.”, says Zarcone. “We work as fast as we can to get the line down. You never know what you are going to get with regards to volume on any given day.”

Zarcone and her team have dealt with heightened emotions from patients.

“In my particular role I have to be the person people are able to trust to sort out issues, a familiar face and someone who can deescalate patients,” she says. “What is important to me is providing reassurance and a calming presence to my patients in a time where they are in need of it the most.”

Having a purpose

Both Zarcone and Santiago work double shifts – one at the Assessment Centre and another at the Urgent Care Centre, located at the same site.

Zarcone also contributed to the efforts at Grace Villa long-term care home during the pandemic. She was the first nurse to go swab all residents and staff there in November 2020, and continued doing so weekly for more than a month.

“What keeps me in this role is the feeling of having a purpose,” she says, having worked as an emergency nurse at HHS, both in McMaster Children’s Hospital emergency department and the HHS Urgent Care Centre.

Resilience and gratitude

You can learn a lot about yourself working in healthcare during a pandemic.

For Zarcone, she learned about her own resilience.

“I truly felt like I made a difference in the Assessment Centre and Grace Villa. I will be able to tell my kids one day how I worked tirelessly during this pandemic. I will tell them how I didn’t give up even though it was tough and I cried after my shifts. I continued to push through and show up for my patients every day. I’ve learned how strong I am as a person and a nurse.”

Czarina Santiago

Czarina Santiago

For Santiago, it’s gratefulness.

“I have learned to stay positive even in the worst of times, and to always remember that there is light at the end of the tunnel. I have learned that having great coworkers to navigate this pandemic with is the most therapeutic remedy for social isolation. And, I have learned to be thankful for the people who surround me physically and virtually every day, including my family, friends, and coworkers. They make the days easier, one swab at a time.”

Looking back

“The closing of the COVID Assessment Center came with mixed emotions to say the least. As exhausting and repetitive it was most days, the support and friendships I built with some amazing colleagues got me through. I can honestly say working at the Assessment Center was a job that made me feel like I was part of the solution on a daily basis. Swab after swab, bringing comfort where their was anxiety and reassurance during uncertain times I truly felt I was a crucial part of the battle of the ongoing COVID pandemic.” – Allie Zarcone

To learn more about Assessment Centres and COVID-19 testing in Hamilton, visit: