The public library is the latest place to pick up a coronavirus test. Librarians are overwhelmed. – The Washington Post

by health and nutrition advice journalist

As public libraries in the District and across the nation have been pressed into service as coronavirus test distribution sites, librarians have become the latest front-line workers of the pandemic. Phones ring every few minutes with yet another call from someone asking about the library’s supply of free coronavirus tests, often asking medical questions library workers aren’t trained to answer. Patrons arrive in such large numbers to grab tests that the line sometimes backs up for blocks. And exhausted librarians also are getting sick with covid themselves.

“The library has always been a community center, a place where the public can get something they wouldn’t have otherwise, like free Internet,” another D.C. children’s librarian said. “But it feels like we’ve become too good at our jobs. It becomes, ‘Oh, the library can handle it.’ We’re getting more and more tasks and responsibilities that just feel overwhelming.”

Just before Christmas, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced that select libraries would also offer at-home antigen test kits that patrons could use to get results in just 15 minutes. Demand for the at-home tests — which at times were hard to find in pharmacies — soared, especially as people sought to get tested before joining family and friends for the holidays. And librarians’ workload soared too.

“It interrupted other services. Our staff were rightly concerned that we were encouraging people who needed to take a test to come into our facilities and be in close contact with our staff. That elevated stress levels. And once people heard about it, they were irate if they couldn’t get [a test]. We had run out so fast,” said Cadillic, a longtime library worker and president of the union that represents much of the city’s library staff.

Cadillic said librarians have been under pressure for months; most library workers recount asking people every day to please wear their masks inside the library. “People are yelling at staff and calling them names, just a horrible racist barrage daily,” she said. “ ‘You’re infringing on my rights’ has just become a constant.”

“Most library workers want to be there for their communities. … But with this new surge, we have to balance: Do we have enough staff to open our library safely? That’s the question I hear a lot of libraries talking about,” Huggins said. “They’ve got their own staff sick and in quarantine. They may have to go back to curbside pickup [for books] because they don’t have enough staff to keep the building open.”

While librarians say they are proud to provide an in-demand service, many also feel out of their depth, especially when patrons ask them medical questions. “ ‘Do you have any kits?’ That’s the one we can answer. … Other than that, unfortunately, we aren’t health-care workers,” one librarian east of the Anacostia said. “It gets really repetitive and frustrating really fast.”

In D.C., library spokesman George Williams said the library has moved staff between branches to avoid closing branches on days that many workers are out sick. “We have suspended in-person public programming such as author talks, film showings, classes. We continue to monitor and make decisions about service based on changing conditions.,” Williams wrote in an email.

The District was working on sending security guards to help manage foot traffic and distribute coronavirus tests, but due to staff shortages had not had enough security personnel available for every city site distributing tests, according to an email from a library leader that was shared with The Washington Post.

Several librarians have advocated for closing the library buildings again — at the beginning of the pandemic, D.C.’s libraries shut their doors for several months, allowing residents to pick up books outside part of that time. Others say they want to stay open, but want help avoiding the virus or more support if they do get sick.

City Administrator Kevin Donahue told the D.C. Council that he is working with the city’s public-sector labor unions to bring back the coronavirus-specific leave that the city offered its employees earlier in the pandemic, which Donahue said Friday will allow additional paid time off for workers who contract the virus.

This content was originally published here.

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