All season long, the honor of raising the 12 Flag has gone to people and organizations who have been significant positive influences in their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Few other people fit that bill better than the actual frontline healthcare workers who have made great sacrifices to care for COVID patients and administer tests and vaccines.
This week, we are honoring our own COVID testers as our honorary 12 Flag raisers for the hard work they’ve put in every single day of the season to keep the Seahawks players and staff safe and healthy.
Once it was known that the 2020 NFL season would go on as planned, it became clear that COVID-19 testing was going to be a key component in successfully having games played. Since July, Seahawks players and staff have been tested numerous times a week in line with the league’s health and safety protocols. The “Seahawks Swab Team” has been part of the organization the entire time, working to make sure that players are tested, results are back in a timely manner, and everyone around the team stays safe.
“It’s been us trying to make sure the Seahawks get the results on time and ensure that everyone who was exposed or at risk is excluded fast and to reconfirm the results before they get into contact with anyone else,” said Victor Omballa, site manager of the trailer testing site. Omballa oversees the daily operations at the trailer and ensures that testing runs smoothly and guidelines are followed. That includes making sure everyone wears proper personal protective equipment (PPE) including gloves, face masks, face shields, and gowns.
“What stands out in terms of masking and washing your hands is that we’re trying to reduce the incidence of COVID-19, at least among this population,” Omballa said. “If you look at our results, and we’ve been going through this every week, all our people since we started this back in July of 2020, we’ve all continued to test negative. This offers evidence of the team here sticking to the COVID protocols whether they’re within the trailer or outside the trailer with family and friends.”
Not only has the Swab Team stayed COVID-free, but the Seahawks were the only team in the NFL to not have a player placed on the COVID-19/reserve list up until early December. “It’s something we’re extremely proud of, because we review these results each and every day when they’re uploaded within the system,” Omballa said.
Lauren Arreola normally works at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, where she cares for a completely different demographic than she does with the Seahawks. Still, she says, the commitment to staying COVID-free is apparent within the organization.
“It’s amazing going from one really sick population to a healthy one,” Arreola said. “It’s great how under control everything is here. And it’s good to see everybody on board to keep everything clean, to keep their distance. Seeing how a healthy population handles it, especially a tight-knit one here, it’s amazing how good it is.”
Like a lot of healthcare workers, the Swab Team’s hours can vary quite a bit, leading to some long shifts. Vicki Balatbat, a nurse who’s been working at the trailer, says that the team didn’t know what their schedule would be like in the beginning — or if there would even be a season.
“As days went by, and now that we’ve gotten into a normal routine, we come here about 4:30 to 5:00 a.m., and we could get done as early as 12:00 or some days as late as 6:00 or 7:00 p.m,” Balatbat said. “We’re also not only here in the trailer, but we go to different testing sites. For example, testing referees before games, the team hotel, helping out other teams that are visiting. Our hours really vary for the most part.”
“It definitely takes a toll, you don’t have much of a life outside work these days,” said Emily Ellsworth, another member of the Swab Team. “It’s kind of a good routine we’ve got going here — we swab all of them, they come through — sometimes they trickle through, sometimes they all come in at the end of the day so it can get really swamped and we’ve got a line of people.”
Even with the long, busy hours, the gravity of the moment and importance of the work make the experience worthwhile for Ellsworth. “I think what makes it really worth it is this is like a part of history,” she said. “This is something that’s never happened before. This isn’t the first pandemic, but to be able to continue playing a sport when you’re supposed to have a quarantine — it’s a great opportunity.”