Cold Weather’s Impacts on Covid Testing

Many frontline workers are gearing up for colder weather while collecting tests outdoors.

What You Need To Know

  • Colder weather is impacting Covid testing operations
  • Assembled in March-May for spring-summer testing, tents now require climate control
  • Doctors and nurses have difficulty working long hours in the cold while wearing PPE
  • The collection vials require temperature-controlled storage

If you remember back to mid-March, during the beginning of lockdown or ‘pause’, there weren’t many places that readily offered a Covid test, other than hospitals. Even then, patients had to meet strict criteria, typically accompanied by a doctor’s prescription.

By April and May, testing qualifications eased, and outdoor drive-thru tents were popping up all over the area, usually run by state or county agencies.

In May, the weather was warm, no matter what part of the country you found yourself in. While first responders, dressed in unbreathable plastic gowns, were sweating through the summer heat across the country in their outdoor testing tents, they knew that their comfort was a sacrifice to keep the vital metrics flowing about the state of the pandemic. 

Let’s fast forward several months. Snow is in the forecast for many U.S. locations in the coming days, and frost and freeze warnings have already been posted across numerous regions.

As we get deeper into fall and the daylight hours get shorter, colder weather is unavoidable.

This colder weather not only makes conditions more difficult for the frontline medical teams to work in, but also has implications for controlling the temperature of the testing material. 

After medical workers swab a patient, they place the specimen in a vial containing a reddish liquid. This liquid is known as a ’viral transport medium’ and must also have its temperature controlled, in a narrow range, usually 35-46 degrees Fahrenheit, according to CDC testing standards.

During the summer, the staff would put the vials in a cooler. During the winter, however, it’s not as easy to control a refrigerated item when the ambient temperature is below freezing.

After speaking to the frontline workers following the first ‘really cold’ day in the field, earlier this week, some wonder ‘How are we going to prepare for the winter?’ 

Carolyn M. Sorge is an RN and is working toward her BSN while performing dozens of swabs daily at the Kean University outdoor testing site in New Jersey, operated by the Union County Office of Health Management.

Toward the end of her three-and-a-half-hour shift on Monday, her hands went numb from the cold air. The weather was misting with a temperature of 52 degrees most of the day.

Nurses, like Carolyn, and other medical technicians require that fine-touch feeling in their hands to guide the swabs into patients’ noses and beyond to perform the test, called a nasopharyngeal swab.

The first cold day this week offered a challenge. It was a preview of the many challenges that will come as testing likely ramps up through the winter.

“The back of my neck got really cold, and I’m wearing three pairs of rubber gloves, but at least I’m moving around,” Sorge recounted. She told me that the tech who sits at the table doing the paperwork was visibly shivering by the end of the shift. 

While Carolyn admits that space heaters were in place, they weren’t yet connected to power.

The staff brought swamp coolers, or giant evaporating fans, to cool the tents during the hot summer months. Still, anyone who has been to a winter sporting event knows that the lack of movement while in outdoor stadium seating runs the cold feeling through your veins, even when the temperature is just 45 degrees.

During the warm spring and summer months, the outdoor testing sites have had their share of inclement weather in rain and wind, and they made adjustments. However, the wind has notably been a problem. On a breezy day, Carolyn says, “There’s a wind tunnel effect in the tents. Stuff is blowing around everywhere.”

On the day that Carolyn worked, there were almost 750 appointments, plus they had to administer extra swabs ‘drive-ins’ with no appointments. Keeping track of all those appointments is logistically challenging in itself, on a warm sunny day.

With winter storms a possibility in the near future, the logistics become more challenging.

How would they keep the parking lots clear of snow and ice work when there’s a constant flow of cars? Or how long would a rescheduled appointment need to wait if inclement weather cancels testing on a certain day? Are the temporary outdoor tents that the staff installed in the spring rated to withstand the weight of a few inches of snow or a coating of ice on their roofs?

All of these questions will need answers very soon.