Kitchener-Waterloo·In Depth

Doctors, hospital staff reflect on anniversary of 1st COVID-19 case in Waterloo region

On March 5, 2020, Region of Waterloo Public Health announced the community had its first case of COVID-19. Now, a year later, doctors and a hospital president reflect back on the year and how much has changed since those early days of the pandemic.

On March 5, 2020, Region of Waterloo Public Health announced its first case of COVID-19

On March 5, 2020, Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang, then the acting medical officer of health for Region of Waterloo Public Health and Emergency Services, spoke to the media after the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Waterloo region. She was joined by Dr. William Ciccotelli, right, medical director of infection prevention and control for Grand River Hospital. (Max Leighton/CBC)

Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang says Waterloo region was hit harder by COVID-19 last spring than she anticipated it would be.

"It spread so much through the long-term care homes and high-risk retirement homes and had such a devastating impact on its residents and the staff who care for them. It was very difficult to deal with that," Wang, the region's medical officer of health, said in an interview with CBC Kitchener-Waterloo's Craig Norris, host of The Morning Edition.

She said over the past 12 months of the pandemic, the biggest challenge has been the ever-evolving information about the virus.

"It was very difficult to learn all about it while responding to it," she said.

Friday marks the one-year anniversary of when Region of Waterloo Public Health announced the first case of COVID-19 in the community. It was a woman in her 50s who had recently travelled. CBC Kitchener-Waterloo reported the woman took private transportation to Grand River Hospital directly from Toronto Pearson International Airport when she landed and was self-isolating at home with mild symptoms.

Over the past year, Wang says her days have been "pretty non-stop." She's appeared at almost every media briefing about the virus to provide updates on case counts and spread. She's appeared regularly before regional council to do the same.

Signs like this one were posted at municipal buildings throughout Waterloo region in March 2020 reminding people on how to stop the spread of germs during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

She's repeated herself many times, reminding people to follow public health measures: wear a mask, avoid close contacts with people outside a person's household, wash hands frequently, stay home if experiencing symptoms.

Not everyone has listened. Wang says she knows some people don't believe the virus is as bad as public health officials have said. 

She said it is hard to convince people that the difficult measures and the sacrifices — including not seeing family and friends for holidays — means the community avoided the worst case scenario.

"When you are successful, nothing happens or the worst is prevented," she said.

'Plastic wrap and tape all over the place'

The emergency department has been "turned on its head over the course of the last year," says Rupinder Sahsi, an emergency physician at Grand River Hospital.

"Certainly when all of this started, there was a mad scramble to try to figure out how we're going to cope with this anticipated surge in COVID activity in our community and coming into our emergency department," he said. "All of our spare time, if you want to call it that, was spent in meetings or planning or on phone calls trying to figure out essentially our response plan to all of this."

Rupinder Sahsi is an emergency physician at Grand River Hospital. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

The emergency department's physical environment changed, he said. Rooms were retrofitted, some to include negative pressure and aerosol seals, and "there's plastic wrap and tape all over the place."

He noted between screening patients for COVID-19, putting on protective equipment, taking it off again and getting the rooms clean, those working in emergency departments have probably increased their workload by 25 to 30 per cent. 

"Our staffing numbers are still exactly the same and we're still expected to meet performance targets and take care of the people as they come through the door. And, you know, that's probably adding to just this generalized sense of fatigue amongst pretty much everyone in health care," Sahsi said.

When asked how he's doing now, Sahsi replied honestly: "I'm not sure."

"It feels almost disingenuous when people ask, 'Hey, how's it going?' And you give them the answer of 'fine,'" he said.

"I'm trying to stay hopeful," he added, calling vaccines the "light at the end of the tunnel."

"You have to find your ways to keep going. And we're all doing that. That's not unique to people who are in health care."

Dr. Rupinder Sahsi, left, is seen in this photo he took at the Grand River Hospital COVID-19 testing tent in a parking lot at 137 Glasglow St. in Kitchener with Dr. Nicholas D'Alosio and Dr. Li-Hsin Chang. (Grand River Hospital/@grhospitalkw/Twitter)

'Roller coaster' year for family doctors

Family doctors have been among the first people to receive phone calls about COVID-19. Dr. Sharon Bal, a family physician in Cambridge, says she's answered questions as best as she could about the virus from the very beginning and is now taking calls about the vaccine, including from her own parents.

She called it a "roller coaster" year for doctors, as well as their patients.

The spring saw a lot of anxiety.

"As time progressed, questions changed, as you can imagine, and our confidence changed as we got to know more about the virus," she said.

Dr. Sharon Bal is a family physician in Cambridge and the primary care physician lead for the Region of Waterloo's vaccine rollout task force. (Zelia Bester/@SharonBalMD/Twitter)

"In the fall, certainly we got questions around school from parents who had concerns about symptoms and how to navigate them toward testing. And I would say, you know, increasingly more and more anxiety, more mental health, is really what we're fielding with almost every appointment in primary care."

Bal, who is also the primary care physician lead for the region's vaccine rollout task force, says family physicians want to be involved in the next step, as people start to get vaccinated. 

"Primary care's role will be, as always, navigating that journey of being available to patients to answer their questions, ease their anxieties and help them traverse the systems," she said.

From banging pots to letters from kids

Lee Fairclough had just arrived in her new role as president of St. Mary's General Hospital in Kitchener in January 2020 and says she remembers those first days of COVID-19 in the region vividly.

Hospitals, community care and public health quickly connected for a coordinated, regional response early on, which Fairclough says was "critical" to helping the community.

"We mobilized with partners easily and by necessity. One year later, these partnerships are very strong and will be lasting. I hope they result in improvements in other areas of health care," she said.

In the early days, Fairclough said information was coming in about how to test people and how to care for people with the virus. They set up assessment centres, special COVID-19 rooms and tried to also ensure everyone had the personal protective equipment they needed. The hospital has also overseeing outbreaks in local long-term care and retirement homes.

It all comes back to hospital staff, who made it happen under very difficult circumstances, she notes.

"I am so proud of the courage of our teams to stay focused and work through the fears of the unknown, the outbreaks and the unrelenting nature of the virus, while at the same time providing compassionate care," Fairclough said.

She says when people were banging pots for health-care workers and putting up signs in their lawns, it made a difference, lifting spirits. Over the months there have been letters from children, drive-by tributes, donations of food as well as offers of help from individuals and organizations.

"The response by the community will be something I will never forget," she said. 

"Most importantly, though, will be the stories of patients who experienced COVID, as well as some of our own staff. We reflect on the impact this virus had on them and their families and are thinking of them at this time."

'I'm very hopeful'

There have been more than 10,800 cases of COVID-19 since March 5, 2020 in Waterloo region. Of those, 229 people in the community have died after contracting the virus.

But health-care workers, people in long-term care homes and as of Thursday, people 80 years of age and older are receiving the Pfizer-BioTech vaccine.

And while it is good news, it doesn't mean the community is in the clear, Wang says.

"It's been a long haul and we still have a few months left where it's going to be quite difficult because we need to keep up with our precautions, we need to try to prevent a third wave," she said.

The next few months "will be one of our most difficult periods to go through, we will have better days ahead," she said, but she also credits the community for all the efforts they've made to curb the spread of the virus.

"It's because of all the work of this community that we have prevented the worst," she said.

"These days, I'm very hopeful," Wang said. "We're going to have a better future."

Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang is Waterloo region's medical officer of health. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

With files from Hala Ghonaim

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