Paula Edwards remembers the day she found out she had COVID-19. It was April 29. She was dismayed to find out she was the second City of Ottawa staff person to have a confirmed case of the disease.
“I was in shock,” says the personal support worker with 19 years of experience caring for residents at the Peter D. Clark Long Term Care Home in Centrepointe.
She called her husband, gave him the news, calmed herself down and then headed home. She decided to spend her COVID isolation period alone in the family’s recreational vehicle. She spent 27 long days in the RV, feeling better, then feeling worse, talking twice daily with public health medical staff, and chatting daily with a supervisor and colleagues at the City of Ottawa. She worried about the residents at the Peter D. Clark home, who needed care more than ever. And she worried about the staff remaining who had to fill in the gaps.
Her children delivered food. She watched television, consumed chicken soup, water and Gatorade, had long naps and forced herself to walk. After 27 days in the trailer, she isolated for another 10 days in the family home. She was never hospitalized but went through nasty symptoms that included a sore throat, hoarseness, losing her sense of smell and taste, and reduced hearing. Three times she tested positive for COVID-19. On the 37th day of isolation, she received a negative test result and whooped for joy.
Ms. Edwards took a few days off, then returned to work at the Peter D, Clark home. Some of her neighbours were astonished to see her driving away to work each day.
The hardest part of returning to work was walking into the home and understanding that some residents were gone. “Walking around and seeing the people who were missing. The empty rooms. That was hard. It was a tough day,” she recalls. “I felt angry at the virus.”
So, when Director of Long Term Care Dean Lett sent an email to staff saying that the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine was available, Ms. Edwards shook with excitement as she called to make the vaccination appointment. “This is what I’ve been hoping for. I felt very honoured. I felt very privileged.”
She was among the first 100 people in Ottawa to get the vaccine, on December 15, with Ottawa Hospital staff clapping as the first people came in for their shots that morning. She was also the first person from the Chapleau Cree First Nation to get the vaccine.
“That day, I was really proud. It was a celebration,” she says. “You see, we’re getting there.”
When she returned to the hospital January 5 to get the second vaccine shot, Ms. Edwards was pleased to see more people lining up for the vaccine.
Her message to vaccine doubters is simple. “It’s about saving lives,” says Ms. Edwards. “I’ve seen the lives it can take.”
For Marc Lamarche, a personal support worker with 20 years of experience working in the City’s long-term-care homes, the motivation to vaccinate comes from a desire to see a return to something approaching normalcy.
He sees every day the effects of the pandemic at the Garry J. Armstrong Long Term Care Home: residents who are bewildered by staff wearing gowns, masks and face shields, with just their eyes visible; residents who are experiencing psychological stress and mental decline due to the reduced family contacts and activities during the pandemic; and staff who are weary of all of the extra steps required for care during a pandemic.
The City’s long-term care homes have recently been spared from major outbreaks of COVID, due to their staff’s extraordinary efforts to follow protocols and keep buildings clean. But Mr. Lamarche knows colleagues elsewhere in Ontario who have recently seen major outbreaks, with devastating consequences.
“It spreads like wildfire,” he says. “Long-term care has been hit so hard.”
So, Mr. Lamarche was keen on vaccination. He did have questions, about exactly how the vaccine works and reactions people can get from the shot. He notes that a lot of misinformation and conspiracy theories have been spread by social media and in U.S. fringe politics. He got information on the vaccine from reading material on Ottawa Public Health’s website and calling with some specific questions, which were answered.
Satisfied that he trusted the science, and the governments and public health leaders advising to take the vaccine, he booked an appointment, showed up at the Ottawa Hospital and got the first of two Pfizer shots. The next day he was back at work. His arm was a little sore but it was “just like a flu shot.” He’s advising colleagues to get informed about the facts of COVID-19 and just get vaccinated.