As recently as March 14, there was a sense among some Canadians that the requests to steer clear of one another for fear of infecting our loved ones with the new coronavirus were overblown.
On that particular sunny Saturday in Kingston, Ont., a 21-year-old university student who did not let her compromised immune system, nor the pandemic, get in the way of celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, smiled into the camera and said: “I’m not even worried because I take supplements and I self-medicate.”
Never mind the fact that studies continue to show most supplements don’t work, nor is there a vaccine yet to protect against COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Before the weekend was out, mass closures were being announced related to gyms, schools and travel.
Now, there are calls to embrace social distancing to help flatten the curve, horror stories of Italian doctors forced to choose who lives and who dies and a seemingly never-ending list of cancellations and closures.
The situation changes almost hourly. And while so much is to be determined, it’s clear that COVID-19 is already changing people’s lives nationwide. Here is how it has impacted a microbiologist, a call centre agent, a school custodian, abortion providers, kids counsellors and an inmate:
Dan Jackson is spending all of March break deep-cleaning schools for the Limestone District School Board in Kingston, Ont. That’s standard. What isn’t standard is what he’s cleaning.
Usually, Jackson and his fellow custodians are given a bigger cleaning project over the spring holidays, refinishing the floors or something similarly hard to accomplish with hundreds of children underfoot.
This March, the mission is “high-touch areas: desktops, countertops, washrooms, floors.”
And it’s going to take a little extra time. While, usually, custodians are told to use their own discretion for swapping out gloves and cloths, Jackson says they’re under strict orders to swap gloves, cloths, mop heads and buckets of soapy water after every room.
While worry is always in the back of someone’s mind, Jackson says, for the most part, “I try not to let it bother me too much.”
He takes comfort in the fact that there will be plenty of distance between him and other custodians cleaning the buildings and that all non-essential personnel are being required to work from home — fewer germs, extra space between people.
Jackson also takes comfort in the fact that he is fortunate that his job will keep paying, even with the mandated two weeks off after the deep clean.
“There’s a lot of people who don’t have the luxury.”
On her flight from New York home to Toronto this week, one of the people next to Sophie Dyzenhaus was curious about her work as a microbiologist.
The 26-year-old was quick to clarify that she isn’t a font of COVID-19 knowledge any more than the average person is — she studies bacteria, not viruses.
Dyzenhaus started thinking about returning home to Canada after access to the New York University lab where the PhD student works was restricted to essential employees.
There was something about being told to work from home alone in a studio apartment in Manhattan that made home feel very far.
“I hadn’t felt that before,” she says. “But as the borders started getting stricter and travel got more and more restricted, I just felt a lot of distance between myself and my family.”
Social distancing in a single room with no outside access just didn’t feel feasible for weeks or months. Better, Dyzenhaus thought, to stay with her parents in Canada where she could still work remotely.
In a whirlwind 48 hours, she made the decision, booked her ticket and flew home. As of March 17, Dyzenhaus was less than half a day into the 14-day isolation period the Canadian government is asking of all people returning from abroad.
“It still hasn’t sunk in,” she says.
“It doesn’t feel quite real that I’m in Toronto and making absolutely zero efforts to see any of my friends that I haven’t seen for months.”
The call centre agent
On March 16, Emma Cassells was sent home from work for being sick.
The 20-year-old has the flu (seasonal, she thinks) and a long history of immune-compromising conditions stemming from “failure to thrive,” which is when a child’s growth and development is delayed or stunted.
And while her initial reaction to COVID-19 back in January was “oh, this will blow over,” the last week of non-stop headlines has Cassells thinking a little more seriously about how to keep herself safe.
She ticks off some of the conditions that currently make her more at risk for complications if she were to contract COVID-19: asthma, irritable lungs, a viral infection.
And while Cassells’ priority is her health, that doesn’t mean she won’t feel the squeeze of no more paycheques. The call centre where she does seasonal work in Belleville, Ont., isn’t equipped for working from home. She says her boss encouraged her to isolate for two weeks — unpaid.
“That is something that is concerning to me,” she says.
“I have bills… being an adult never stops, even when pandemics happen.”
Cassells plans to spend her time in isolation crunching the numbers and figuring out what she needs to do to keep her bills paid. She’ll look at employment insurance and other supports, and she’s crossing her fingers she doesn’t need to ask family to help her pull through financially.
The abortion providers
The abortion providers at Choice in Health Clinic in Toronto have made a heartbreaking decision: to minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19, they will no longer allow people seeking abortions to bring in a support person.
It’s not a decision made lightly, says Clare Hacksel, the clinic’s executive director.
“We know that having a support person can be the difference between being able to access your abortion or not.”
But it was one the clinic felt necessary, Hacksel says, in order to ensure it can still provide care for people seeking abortions who cannot always afford to wait out a 14-day period of isolation.
“We do not see abortion services as elective,” she says. “They are an essential service, and our goal is to maintain operations while maintaining staff and client safety as much as possible.”
To try to make up for the lack of in-person support, Hacksel says the clinic has eased restrictions on using phones in the clinic (so long as they’re cleaned on site before being brought in). The clinic has also moved all post-abortion counselling services to the phones.
At Athena Health Centre in St. John’s, N.L., anyone seeking an abortion who has travelled outside of the province is being asked to wait until 14 days after their return to access the procedure.
However, a spokesperson said exceptions will “absolutely” be made for people who are near the end of the gestational cutoff. Similar to the Choice in Health Clinic in Toronto, Athena Health Centre is also limiting the waiting room to patients only.
These are tough decisions, acknowledged the Very Reverend Katherine Ragsdale, president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation in the United States, but they are decisions being made across North America as providers figure out the safest way to maintain a person’s right to choose during a pandemic.
“People have a tendency to think that abortion is more elective than it is,” Ragsdale says. “Yes, it’s not bleeding out on the floor, you’re not having a stroke, you’re not having a heart attack. You can schedule your treatment, but it’s not elective in that it can’t be put off indefinitely without serious health and life consequences.”
The federation is keeping its hotline open to help make sure that even if the clinic closest to a person has to close, they know where to go for clinics that are still open.
Hacksel is appreciative of the other voices reiterating that even in times of crisis, abortion access is essential. As a spokesperson for Women’s College Hospital in Toronto said: “We are continuing to offer these services as we normally do.”
That matters a lot, Ragsdale says.
“Women’s health care matters, their access and rights to make decisions about their life matter, and they shouldn’t feel they don’t have the right to get the care they need, including abortion, because of COVID-19.”
The kids counsellors
Between Monday, March 16 and Tuesday, March 17, the demand for Kids Help Phone’s texting service doubled. Texts from young people across Canada specifically mentioning COVID-19 have jumped by roughly 350 per cent in recent days, according to Alisa Simon, chief youth officer with Kids Help Phone.
On March 17, 27 per cent of text conversations between trained volunteers and children were about their fears and anxieties around the virus.
“As things are escalating and things are becoming more serious and more things are closed, we’re expecting that we will continue to hear from people in large numbers,” Simon says. “We’ll have a lot of people with questions or fears about what this will mean for them.”
Fortunately, she says, Kids Help Phone has trained over 2,000 volunteers in the last year, many of whom are now practising social distancing in their homes and coming out in droves to support struggling members of their communities. Many more are now coming forward to be trained as crisis responders for the texting service.
“There’s a huge sense of community,” Simon says, especially on the online platform where the volunteers talk, debrief and get support from paid professionals.
“When we’re at a time where things are unknown and our lives are changing, being able to help other people and to feel like you have a purpose can make us all feel better.”
If you or someone you know is looking for help or wants to volunteer, you can visit Kids Help Phone’s website or text CONNECT to 686868.
Jason Cain, an inmate at Donnacona Institution in Quebec, gets most of his information about COVID-19 from the news. Corrections Canada sent a memo a few weeks ago alerting Cain and his fellow inmates that the new coronavirus was out there, but he says information behind bars about the risk level for Canada’s federal prison population, as well as the possible symptoms, hasn’t been made all that clear.
On March 17, Cain, who is serving a life sentence for murder, says Corrections Canada sent a “vague” letter informing inmates that visits were suspended as well as any non-medical temporary absences. However, he says, it also included a plan to waive some of the money the prisons deduct from inmates monthly to cover food and telephone costs for the next three months.
“What does this mean?” Cain asks. “Does that mean they’re expecting this to happen for that long? That we won’t get any visitors for three months?”
For now, he says, he has more questions than answers.
For the most part, Cain says COVID-19 hasn’t started to have too much of an impact on inmate life but that could change, especially with no visits.
While the letter indicated changes to inmate deductions for three months, a spokesperson for Corrections Canada said visits were suspended “with the intent of reassessing the situation after 10 days.”
She said Corrections Canada is staying in close contact with health officials and ”is prepared to handle cases of influenza and other respiratory illnesses, such as COVID-19.” She also noted that there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in federal prisons.
However, experts have warned that could change — and have long critiqued the availability and quality of health care in Canadian jails.
Prisons are “Petri dishes” where disease spreads quickly and inmates can do little to isolate for protection, Martha Paynter, a nurse who researches prisoner health as part of her doctoral studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, told the Canadian Press.
“People who are inside cannot easily get away from others, there is poor ventilation, little time outside and a lack of hygiene products,” she said.
“It is considered contraband to have access to alcohol-based substances like hand sanitizer. They’re lucky to get a bar of soap. It’s terrifying.”
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Health officials say the risk is low for Canadians but warn this could change quickly. They caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are asked to self-isolate for 14 days in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others.
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. And if you get sick, stay at home.
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