#SwabSquad: The Philadelphia Nurses Dancing Away the Coronavirus Blues

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The team of nurses operating the drive through Covid-19 testing service at Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson University Hospital (TJUH). Jeffrey Salvatore (interviewee) is pictured crouching in the front right, wearing a gray sweat top.

Jeffrey Salvatore is the clinical nurse specialist for the nursing float and per diem pool at Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson University Hospital (TJUH). During the current Covid-19 pandemic he has taken on the role of site coordinator for the Covid-19 drive through testing at TJUH – leading a core team of about 33 nurses (of critical, intermediate, medical, surgical and procedural care specialties) pooled together from various parts of the hospital. They call themselves the “Swab Squad”, and they received wide recognition when singer Ciara reposted an Instagram video of them dancing to her hit song Level Up. The grooves and jives of these PPE-clad nurses have been a source of inspiration for many, including television host Ellen DeGeneres, who interviewed them on her show and invited them to attend her special ‘12 Days of Giveaways’ taping for frontline workers once in-studio filming is again permitted.

I recently spoke with Jeffrey to ask about the team’s experiences thus far at the mobile testing site.

What has it been like working during this pandemic? What are the highs and lows?

“You know I think working this pandemic has been a really emotional process. You feel nervous and you feel scared of if you’re going to encounter the disease, if you’re going to bring it home to your family; but at the same time we’ve had this incredible experience of developing this new bond with each other, and it’s such a strong support system that we don’t really share with other people because nobody really is out here with us understanding what we’re going through. And it’s just a paradox that these nurses who typically do not work together, have been brought together at a time when people are being asked to stay apart and stay away; and just to see the bond that has developed, and their support for each other…I mean it’s what’s getting us through and keeping us going.”

Are many of you separated from your families during this time?

“We’re all in different situations. So some of us have kids but both parents are nurses and their family is not really from around here, so they’re making it work the best they can; some of us have kind of stayed separate from our families or sleep in separate parts of the house but are not really interacting with them like we usually would. So I mean, that’s just made even more important and powerful the bond and support system that we have for each other, because you know we’re not just dealing with treating these patients and being on the front lines, we’re dealing with not seeing our families, with not seeing our friends, with not seeing our significant others, and it’s just like overall a very emotionally taxing process that is just prolonged. I mean, we’re 6 weeks into this and its not looking like things are gonna change too quickly.”

What are your shifts like?

“We’re open 7 days a week in the testing site, so Monday through Friday we test 8 to 5 so we come out at 7 and set everything up, and then from 5 to 6 we break everything down. Saturdays we test 9 to 5, and then Sundays we test 12 to 5. But also, you know, these nurses they are the pool nurses, so they’re not just working the parking lot – they’re going in the hospital and they’re doing shifts as well. So some are doing day shifts – 7 to 7 –, some are doing night shifts – 7 to 7. We have a core group of about 33 nurses that we’ve been rotating through the parking lot.”

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Nurses at the mobile testing site outside of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital

Am I right in thinking you’re the choreographer when it comes to your team’s dance moves?

He laughed. “Um…I mean I would say it’s a joint process but I kind of take a lead role in the final production and cleaning it up. I’m a bit of a perfectionist and the nurses will all tell you that I kind of hold a high standard to anything we do: I want you to be the best nurse that you can be, I want you to be the most professional that you can be; and they were making these TikToks to stay warm and I said ‘alright if we’re doing this we can do it but it’s gonna be clean and it’s gonna look good’ so…”

Has dance always been a part of your life? If so, how?

“So I’ve never been trained or professionally danced, but growing up my Mom always played music 24/7. I remember every Friday growing up we would clean the house, and I have two older brothers and we’d all be assigned a room upstairs and a room downstairs, and music was going the entire time and we were all just dancing around while we were cleaning. And my family, you know, I come from a large Italian family and we just are emotional people and we celebrate with dance and we dance a lot. It’s just something that, you know, my Mom has instilled in us always growing up – music and dancing and just enjoying ourselves, and that’s really been a big part of it.

My mom keeps telling me, she’s like ‘are you telling everybody that I was the one that taught you how to dance?’ and I was like ‘oh my gosh mom.’ ” We both laughed.

What or who inspired the idea for you and your teammates to start dancing?

“Um…I think it just kind of organically happened. Like I said, it’s always been a part of my process; I mean, as a bedside nurse, when I was taking care of patients I would sing and dance to them. I mean the whole thing is, you know, you’re not just treating sicknesses and diseases, you’re treating a person, and when people are in the hospital they’re not in a very good spot, so you wanna get them better physically, but also you wanna get them better emotionally and mentally and make sure that you’re treating the person and not just the disease. So it’s something that in my nine years of being a nurse I’ve always kind of done with my patients, to help cheer them up, you know; and then it kind of would rub off on my coworkers. It’s just, you know, your approach to nursing, like do a holistic approach. We’re not just treating a disease, we wanna treat a person, and there’s a lot more to a person than just their illness.

I brought up the impact of Covid-19 on the creative industries, and the fact that this pandemic is really highlighting the importance of the arts in people’s lives, with such a noticeable absence of many events due to social distancing measures.

“Yeah I mean, I think the arts have always been an escape for people, you know pre-covid-19 pandemic; and now more than ever people need an escape because everything is just so stressful and it’s a lot going on. And I think it’s just a nice escape for us to be able to cheer ourselves up, and you know when we take care of ourselves we’re able to take better care of our patients.

…The better headspace that we’re in we’re able to practice more safely, and when we practice more safely it means our patients get better care, it means that we are able to protect ourselves better because we’re not making mistakes.”

How do you choose the songs to dance to?

“Well we always have upbeat music on – things that just make you want to move around; but we also listen to songs that have meaningful messages to them, like the whole ‘Level Up’ thing, you know, this is what we’re doing. Healthcare workers and frontline personnel all over the world right now, like everybody is leveling up and just doing what needs to be done and taking care of business. So the message of that song really resonates with us.”

These morale-raising dance sessions are usually part of your team’s daily morning routine, correct?

“Yeah, so every morning we put music on, and it looks a little bit different, but it’s a combination of doing some exercising and dancing around, and just boosting ourselves up. Any time we make a TikTok it’s usually at the end of the day if we wanna stay later and do it.”

How has it felt to receive the kind of recognition your team has had (e.g. from celebrities such as Ciara and Ellen) as a result of the videos posted to the @tjuh_pool Instagram page?

“It’s been such a surreal experience, like we still can’t believe that all of this has happened. And we’re still trying to process what it means and what we’re doing; but I think at the end of the day people keep telling us that we’re just spreading positivity and spreading joy, which is what we’re trying to do amongst each other – amongst our team, we’re trying to do that to our patients. And I think that the fact that we’re able to impact on such a larger scale because Ciara reposted us and then Ellen saw that and brought us on the show….I mean just being able to affect so many people and have the opportunity to be a rainbow in somebody’s cloud is just so meaningful to us all.”

Has your team received any other form of recognition that you’d particularly like to highlight?

“You know I don’t think that we’re necessarily looking for recognition. However all the recognition has really given us an opportunity for us to be able to give back. Because at the end of the day the community – the Jefferson and Philadelphia surrounding area community – has been so encouraging and giving us so much support, but at the same time we’ve been struggling because it’s like well, we’re still working, we’re still getting paid, and we feel bad because, although we’re doing a lot this is our job, and we still would like to help out in other ways. So due to all this exposure – and we’ve gotten a lot of followers on Instagram – we set up a virtual food drive for a large food bank in our area, and we’ve been able to raise over $10,000 for that so far. Because of being on Ellen Shutterfly donated $50,000 to our Better Together Fund for the Jefferson Health community employees who are affected during this time. So….we’re taking this opportunity to make it the most positive we can; and to help others in as many ways as we can has just been a really amazing opportunity.”

Is there anything else that you would like to add?

“Um…you know we’re trying to send out a bunch of messages, but the biggest thing is that we’re all gonna get through this together and that’s what we’re doing as a team, that’s how we’re getting through the testing. We’re supporting each other with little acts of love, and these little acts create ripples, and the ripples can have really big effects. So, you know, just do your part – whatever that might look like – stay positive and just, you know, be in it together with everybody.”

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Nurses at the mobile testing site outside of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.


What ingredients do you think would make the perfect smoothie

Jeffrey awesomely and uniquely commented that he’d want to include both tangible and intangible ingredients:

“I think what would make the perfect smoothie would be, um…chocolate, peanut butter, bananas…almond milk and…compassion.”


Be sure to follow this incredible team of nurses and the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital on Instagram @jeffersonhealth and @tjuh_pool ; Twitter @TJUHospital and Facebook @JeffersonHospital 

To donate to their virtual food drive “Philabundance” visit: https://secure.philabundance.org/site/TR/Events/VirtualFoodDrive?team_id=2616&pg=team&fr_id=1040 and to donate to the Jefferson Better Together Covid-19 Fund visit: https://www.givecampus.com/schools/Jefferson/the-covid-19-better-together-fund#updates

Thomas Jefferson University Hospital is the Center City Philadelphia campus of Jefferson Health, which has 14 hospitals across Southeastern PA and Southern New Jersey. For more information about how the TJUH mobile testing sites work visit: https://thehealthnexus.org/mobile-testing-for-covid-19-now-at-all-major-tjuh-sites/



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Starting our day off on the right foot 😉 Let’s get to work! #swabsquad #together #wegotthis #socialdistancing

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