Ottawa·ON THE FRONT LINE

Infection a matter of when, not if, front-line workers say

Renfrew County paramedic Chris Day is now in isolation with a persistent cough, awaiting results of his COVID-19 test. Front-line workers are keenly aware of the risks they face, likening the chances of contracting the illness to a grim game of Russian roulette.

Renfrew paramedic in isolation awaiting results of COVID-19 test

Renfrew County paramedic Chris Day is in isolation in a hotel room in Pembroke, Ont., awaiting the result of his COVID-19 swab. (Chris Day)

Latest

  • Paramedic Chris Day's COVID-19 test came back negative, he learned Thursday.
  • He's now waiting to find out if he needs a second swab. If so, he'll remain in isolation.

The paramedic

Renfrew County paramedic Chris Day figured this day would come.

"I always assumed I would get it. I just thought I would had gotten it a long time ago," said Day, who's currently in isolation awaiting the result of a COVID-19 swab.

Day, 44, started coughing May 7, but because his temperature was normal and he had no other symptoms, he chalked it up to a dry throat.

"No sore throat, no runny nose, no itchy eyes, no diarrhea, no anything." So he returned to work on Monday, four days later.

Day was on the phone with his commander. "At the end of the conversation he says, 'What's with the cough? You coughed 15 to 20 times in the length of our conversation. You should get that looked at.'"

Day said he started coughing on May 7, but returned to work on Monday because he had no other symptoms. He's now in isolation, awaiting results of a test for COVID-19. (Chris Day)

Day was swabbed and sent into isolation to await the results. He's now holed up in a Pembroke, Ont., hotel room, in an area that's  been blocked off for front-line workers needing to isolate from their families. 

"Sometimes I can go hours and hours and hours and not cough at all. And then other times I can cough 50 times in an hour. It's really weird," said Day, who said he's also feeling a tightness in his chest now. "I get winded very easily right now, which is not normal for me." 

Day said he's rarely sick himself.

"I can count on one hand the number of times I've taken medications in my life," he said. "It's a pain in the butt. I'm somebody who's a very active person. So to be [​​​​​stuck] in a room … until your results come back? Drives me up the wall."

Health-care workers' swabs are labelled "HCW" on the testing requisition form.

"In theory, it's supposed to be moved up, but the reality of it is … I'm going to be one of 500 to 1,000 health-care workers that got swabbed in eastern Ontario in the last 24 hours," Day said.

"It could absolutely be nothing. Twenty of my co-workers have been tested over the past two and a half months, and every single one of them has come back negative." 

Paramedics follow strict PPE measures meant to protect them from infection. 

"We feel safer at work than we do in the general community," said Day, who was swabbing residents in a long-term care facility last week. That home has no known cases of COVID-19. 

So if he comes back positive, where did he get it? "That's the million dollar question," Day said.

The nurse

Peggy Freemark learned about the first death of a Canadian nurse from COVID-19 while she was on the night shift in the ICU at Ottawa's Queensway Carleton Hospital.

"I figured it was gonna happen soon," Freemark said. "I feel for the family. They were just going to work, trying to do their job and stay safe. It's very sad."

Her own health has been good, though. "Touch wood."

Freemark, 55, has started wearing a mask when she goes to the grocery store.

"I was out shopping one day and … 80 per cent of the people in the store had masks on. So I just thought, well, I'm going to protect others in case I have it."

A nursing friend sewed masks for Freemark and her family, including a small animal-print one for her granddaughter Ava, 7.

Queensway Carleton Hospital nurse Peggy Freemark and her granddaughter Ava, 7, show off their new masks sewed for them by another QCH nurse, Theresa Wilson. (Peggy Freemark)

Freemark thinks back to February when she and Ava both had a fever, cough and weakness.

"When I hear people describe the symptoms, it almost sounds to me like we both had it … and maybe that's why I'm not picking it up — because I have some antibodies," she said.

At work, "the staff are really seeming to come together. They have a better appreciation for one another and the jobs they're doing," Freemark said. "We don't break down as much as we did when we first started through all this."

The veteran nurse wonders whether the pandemic will attract new nursing recruits, or frighten them off. 

"It could go one of two ways. Those that were thinking about it … may decide, 'Yeah, I don't want this. This isn't for me.' Others might say, 'Wow, this is a great career'. And I think it is. I hope it doesn't scare people away."

The doctor

Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng likens the odds facing front-line health-care workers to Russian roulette. Play the game long enough and it's not a question of if, but when.

"I always assumed since this all started that we'll get [COVID-19] eventually," said Kyeremanteng, 42, an urgent and palliative care physician at the Ottawa and Montfort hospitals. "Instead of one bullet in the chamber, there's one and a half with me because of work."

Despite those grim odds though, Kyeremanteng said he hasn't had any "close calls," nor has he been tested for the virus.

Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng, seen here at the Ottawa Hospital's General campus, compares the chances of front-line health-care workers contracting COVID-19 to Russian roulette. But he said patients who wait too long to go to hospital for other issues are also playing a dangerous game. (Kwadwo Kyeremanteng)

But health-care workers aren't the only ones playing a dangerous game. Despite constant urging from public health authorities, patients are still "presenting late" at hospital with other maladies and ending up in life-threatening situations, Kyeremanteng said.

"I had a patient that stayed at home for five days with a pretty bad infection. If they would have come earlier to the hospital, they wouldn't be as sick and needing intensive care."

That patient presented with cellulitis, a serious skin infection. By the time she arrived, her blood pressure was out of control and she needed "our strongest antibiotics," Kyeremanteng said. "[The patient's] life was threatened as a result of this infection."

The patient's reason for waiting so long? Fear of contracting COVID-19.

"That's why they waited. It's so tragic, especially when you know we have capacity. It tore at my heartstrings a little bit," the physician said.

"If she would have been seen when she needed to be seen? That's not an intensive care admission. That's a clinic visit," Kyeremanteng said. "Maybe an [ER] visit, depending on how long they waited."

Patients need to stop risking their lives over fear of contracting COVID-19, he urged.

"Don't risk your health for a maybe.... Don't worry about the what-ifs." 

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