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Farmington • Health care workers at Utah’s drive-thru coronavirus testing sites are ramping up efforts to stay cool as temperatures throughout the state soar to triple digits this week.

“We don’t want them to be patients in the hospital,” Jerry North, senior director of facilities for University of Utah Health, said of the testing staff.

The nurses and medical assistants poking swabs into patients’ noses aren’t the only workers in Utah with jobs that take them outside in the fierce late summer heat. But laden with plastic gowns, face shields and helmets, the staff under Utah’s testing tents can end up cooking like bagged turkeys in an oven.

“There have been times when people get faint,” said Tayler Gilmore, the lead medical assistant for the testing site at the U.‘s clinic in Farmington.

Because of the close contact with symptomatic patients and the task of working with potentially viral material itself, staff who conduct the tests wear full, plastic hospital gowns and full head coverings. By 9:30 a.m. on Friday, one medical assistant at the Farmington site was already mopping sweat off his face.

But, Tayler Gilmore said, “we’ve been pretty proactive.”

University Health supplied cooling vests with removable ice packs for each of the 100 or so employees working in the health care system's four drive-up testing sites. Employees at the clinic sewed absorbent neck coolers out of colorful bandanas, which the testing staff can soak in water and freeze before tying them around their necks.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bandanas are kept cold and wet, used by staff conducting COVID-19 testing at the University of Utah Health's Farmington Health Center on Friday, July 31, 2020.

The virus makes some typical measures impractical. For instance, the staff can't use fans in the tents.

"We can't be pumping air through these places where we're testing patients," North said.

Instead, air conditioning units cast a chill over the administrative area in the tent. Sometimes employees simply stand in front of the vent when they get hot, Tayler Gilmore said.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cooling vest in a cooler used by staff conducting COVID-19 testing at the University of Utah Health's Farmington Health Center on Friday, July 31, 2020.
(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A cooling device blows cold air for medical staff conducting COVID-19 testing at the University of Utah Health's Farmington Health Center on Friday, July 31, 2020.

Taking breaks in the shade or breeze outside the tent isn't enough to keep the testing staff safe, said Nikki Gilmore, senior nursing director of ambulatory care for U. clinics. That only lowers body temperature a couple of degrees.

"You really need to go in front of an air conditioner and get some ice to get that body temperature down," Nikki Gilmore said.

Supervisors also are diligently keeping track of workers' breaks, she said. When a line of cars is waiting in the parking lot, it can be hard for staff to remember to tear themselves away from their work before they start to show signs of being dangerously overheated.

“We’re making people take a break every hour,” Nikki Gilmore said. “Otherwise you keep going and sometimes it’s too late.”