The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

People stand in line to receive free coronavirus self-testing kits at the Shaw Neighborhood Library in D.C. on Dec. 23. Libraries around the country have become distribution sites, making librarians the latest front-line workers in the pandemic. (Michael A. McCoy/Reuters)
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It was another busy day at the public library when a visitor walked up and stood close to the children’s librarian.

“My roommate is positive for covid,” the woman said. “How often should I be testing myself?”

The librarian grimaced under her mask.

“That was one where I took a big step back,” she recalled.

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.”

“We care about our community, but we’re tired,” said another D.C. library staffer, who like all six D.C. library workers interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity because library rules prohibit them from speaking to reporters without permission.

D.C. had one of the lowest rates of coronavirus cases in the country. That has changed.

Public libraries in D.C. started handing out coronavirus test kits months ago, beginning with PCR tests that patrons had to take home to use, then deposit in a dropbox at the library and wait for the results to come back from a lab.

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.

In Boston, the city’s libraries distributed rapid coronavirus tests for just a few days before running out of supplies. Elissa Cadillic described that time as “chaos.”

“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.”

Stressed by a recent surge in coronavirus cases that has left some libraries so understaffed that they have needed to close for parts of the day, Cadillic said, “We had a fair amount of people after those days who just were at their breaking point.”

Melanie Huggins, the president of the American Library Association’s Public Library Association, said library leaders have been eager to turn their buildings into test distribution sites: “We’re in neighborhoods. We know these communities. We know the people that are walking in the doors.”

Still, she said, patrons and workers alike are frustrated. That day, she sat briefly in a library in Columbia, S.C., and heard five patrons in a row walk in looking for coronavirus tests after the library had run out.

“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.”

They were so careful, for so long. They got covid anyway.

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.

Williams noted that D.C. Health staff, not librarians, distribute coronavirus tests at the nine library branches that offer rapid tests. (Librarians can distribute the PCR tests at other branches.)

“DC Health is arriving daily to verify residency and give out rapid tests. The Library is serving as a location for DC Health to distribute rapid tests,” he wrote.

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.

Meanwhile, librarians are finding themselves with less time to manage checkouts, shelving and other library duties.

One woman, who has worked for the D.C. library for 13 years, said the combination of the coronavirus test frenzy and the coronavirus-related staffing shortages have caused interlibrary book exchanges to “grind distribution to a halt.” Readers have been asking where the books they requested are.

“Maybe the testing is the most important thing we can be doing right now. But if so — maybe we shouldn’t be trying to act like everything is normal and providing normal service,” she said. “Nobody wants to go back to curbside holds pickup, but maybe that’s what we should be doing.”

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.

Librarians at D.C.'s reopened public libraries worried about catching coronavirus

“It’s tough to really feel supportive of this when we feel like we’re not getting support back for the extra work we’re doing, the extra risk we’re putting ourselves through,” said one librarian at a branch that is distributing rapid tests.

Workers who get the virus and must isolate at home for five days or longer, or those who must stay home when their children are quarantined from their schools or day cares, are using their sick leave or vacation days. Some have used up all of their paid time off because of the long absences.

Williams said librarians have not received extra pay or benefits to compensate them for distributing coronavirus tests.

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.

The librarian who stepped way back when a woman mentioned her coronavirus exposure has just six hours of sick time left. She fears what would happen if she got sick and had to take unpaid days off.

That morning, she had given a library visitor a mask. His response, she recalls, was: “We’re all going to get [the virus]. If you don’t want to get it, you should stay home.”

The librarian was hurt. “I had just helped his child find a book and exclaimed in delight over his child’s coloring page,” she said. “I don’t have the option to stay home. … It just feels like this big lack of understanding.”