Perspective: Concern in the Time of COVID-19

This is the third entry in the Perspective series, a collection of interviews detailing people's experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read "Confusion" to learn about Scott's experience with an overworked COVID-19 assessment centre.

The current state of affairs has made Sarah anxious, though she masks it well with indifference. She knows everything there is to know about the coronavirus and takes as many safety precautions as she can to maintain her health. Face mask? Check. Hands washed? Check.

Just like most people during this pandemic, she is preparing herself for the worst. Unlike most people, Sarah's "worst" holds far greater repercussions in comparison. See, Sarah is a working nurse and if she contracts COVID-19, she would be contagious to the very people she's taking care of. Once she noticed symptoms of a dry cough and fever, she headed in for a diagnosis.

"The priority is symptomatic healthcare workers."

If a healthcare worker is showing signs of the coronavirus, Occupational Health, a component of the hospital that specifically focuses on the health of medical employees, will step in and ensure that employees get tested immediately. Once her paperwork was processed, she was referred to an assessment centre for the procedure.

“The testing process isn’t actually that bad,” she says, contrary to John’s opinion in the first Perspective piece, though she assures that the nasopharyngeal swab did burn quite a bit. “It’s quick and simple.”

After the test, she was informed that the hospital would get back to her with the results within five days. With the influx of potentially positive patients and no cure in sight, hospitals now take about two days. She is still waiting for her results to come in. Should she test positive for the virus, she will no longer be allowed to work and given the shortage of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), she fears for the worst.

“We don’t get equipment, we worry about the symptoms,” she says. Being on the front lines and administering the COVID-19 tests with little protection also means a huge risk of infection to other patients she’s treating and coming in contact with every day.

According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, health workers are obligated to use personal protective equipment, such as protective gloves, face masks, respirators, etc. It is the employer’s responsibility to ensure their employees are using this equipment, though Ontario’s jurisdiction does not legally require the hospital to pay for them. This pushes the cost onto the nurses, doctors, and other medical workers once supplies start running out, leaving the healthcare coworkers to fend for themselves with no rights in place to protect them.

She claims the hospital is following the CDC’s advice of nurses making homemade masks to combat the supply shortage, with little to no supervision or review of the final product by medical authorities to confirm effectiveness.

“The government and hospital were not prepared,” according to Sarah, a sentiment shared by many, not just in Canada, but around the world.

But pointing fingers during a worldwide crisis isn’t going to cure patients, nor is it going to better a perennially worsening situation. The nurses instead believe in easing their discomfort through what they consider the best medicine: laughter.

They joke about their “DIY” masks, as it were the subject of a YouTuber’s instructional video, and share social media posts for lighthearted fun. One of them refers to rapper The Game’s LAX album, in which he is wearing a black bandana over his face. They find it humorous that the homemade masks they use at work are probably just as effective at keeping them safe from the virus. 

The nurses have also adopted catchphrases to empower themselves. A particularly witty one that Sarah shared was “You don’t send a firefighter in with toilet paper.” 

Others are more straightforward and demand nurses are appreciated for risking their lives every day, i.e., “You don’t send a soldier in without proper equipment, proper armour.”

This reflects the worldwide struggles being faced by hospitals, even governments, to provide face masks, gloves, etc. But at the end of the day, her 12-hour shift in which even a break isn’t guaranteed is worth the risk because of the patients. 

"Of course patients appreciating us helps us cope, too."

But Sarah’s concerns are not going unheard. Hospitals are working closely with the government to find the best means to source PPE and arrange for a surplus. Even companies such as The Gap, H&M, Canada Goose, etc. are shifting away from their usual retail outputs and are focusing their resources on making face masks for hospitals. While a lot of regulatory challenges await these companies, it is nonetheless a community effort to ensure the nurses are provided with the same care and respect as they provide to their patients.

Sarah has received her results. She tested negative for COVID-19.

Personal information such as name, date, age, and place of work has been changed, abbreviated, generalized, or removed for privacy reasons.

Read "Care" for a physician's perspective on the move to virtual care as a COVID-19 safety precaution.

Abdullah works in content and marketing at Dot Health. In his spare time, he writes screenplays, creates media for YouTube, and stays quarantined.

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