Ottawa·ON THE FRONT LINE

Health-care workers brace for COVID-19 surge

Front-line health-care workers are coping with a resurgence of COVID-19 cases in the nation's capital and the Ottawa Valley.

Lessons learned in 1st phase include how to bribe kids before swabbing

Renfrew County paramedic Chris Day says he hasn't taken a day of vacation during the COVID-19 pandemic, and with numbers once again going up, it might be awhile before that changes. (Kody Koepsel)

Front-line health-care workers are coping with a resurgence of COVID-19 cases in the nation's capital and the Ottawa Valley.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, CBC Ottawa has been checking in with an intensive and palliative care physician and a rural paramedic.

The series took a break while case numbers were relatively low, but with the recent surge in positive tests, we got back in touch.

The paramedic

Renfrew County paramedic Chris Day says he hasn't touched a day of vacation yet this year.

The 44-year-old has been helping swab hundreds of kids at Fellowes High School and Westmeath Public School after COVID-19 outbreaks there.

Renfrew County was relatively free of COVID-19 cases for months until a flare-up in September, according to the health unit's monthly profile

Day blames the increase on new exposures as people returned to work and school, some after shopping for school supplies in Ottawa. Pembroke is also the eastern gateway to Algonquin Park, he added, which continues to welcome throngs of visitors from across the province. 

Day swabbed his five-year-old daughter Amyann when she developed a runny nose, and as he says, she wanted 'nothing to do with it.' (Submitted by Chris Day)

"Clusters can pop up," said Day. "All it takes is one person."

Day himself has been swabbed six times for COVID-19, always with a negative result.

He also handled the swabbing duties for his family when, two weeks ago, two of his children had runny noses and congestion. His older child was fine, but his five-year-old hid under the bed, Day said.

"She wanted nothing to do with it," he said.

In fact, Day said constantly subjecting kids to COVID-19 swabbing is hard — both on him and his fellow paramedics.

"Obviously, it's a very uncomfortable procedure. So when you're dealing with two-year-olds, three-year-olds, four-year-olds, hearing them crying? Having to have mom and dad help us hold them in place? That's pretty rough on a number of us, especially those of us who have young kids ourselves," said Day.

Day says he has a wide range of inducements to "bribe" the kids, including small toys, squishy balls, stickers and lollipops — albeit the sugar-free variety.

"Can't work with the health unit and then give out sugar," he said.

Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng, an intensive and palliative care physician at the Ottawa and Montfort hospitals, says despite the rising COVID-19 case tallies he's not convinced Ottawa's health care system is in 'crisis.' (Kwadwo Kyeremanteng)

The doctor

Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng may be an intensive and palliative care physician at the Montfort and Ottawa Hospitals, but he's also a parent — and like many parents, having his two older children back in school has been the fall's high point.

"That's a big win," said Kyeremanteng.

However, the return to school has coincided with a COVID-19 spike in the city, along with more than 130 cases tied to schools in the Ottawa-Gatineau region.

"I never thought we were out of the woods," said Kyeremanteng. "We knew we were coming into a season where there was going to be more respiratory illnesses. My real question was, 'To what degree?' What's the result of that [increase] going to be?"

It doesn't tell me that necessarily we're going to be overwhelmed- Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng

The most important measure, he said, is there hasn't yet been a "significant" rise in hospitalizations, ICU admissions to deaths — although there have been some increases, according to numbers from Ottawa Public Health.

The 43-year-old said he wasn't entirely sure he understood the claim by Dr. Vera Etches, the city's medical officer of health, that Ottawa's health care system is in crisis

He does agree there are elements that are seriously struggling, especially around COVID-19 testing and contact tracing.

But as he puts it, "What I don't think right now is that our hospitals are going to be overwhelmed and we're going to be Italy or we're going to be New York."

Even so, the current caseload trends are "moving in the wrong direction," said Kyeremanteng.

"The fact that it's going up tells us that we've still got to stay vigilant. We still have to mask. We've still have to distance. We've got to do our part," he said. "But it doesn't tell me that necessarily we're going to be overwhelmed."

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