Letter: My volunteer experience at a KFL&A COVID-19 assessment centre

A worker completes a COVID-19 test in a clinical setting. Photo by Mat Napo.

Editorial note: The following is a letter to the editor from a reader expressing her personal experiences through the COVID-19 pandemic. The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of The Kingstonist.

In April 2020, I began by delivering meals for VON. I also accepted a position as a runner at a local COVID Assessment Center in the KFL&A Health Unit of Eastern Ontario. I worked through two big surges in cases, and two lockdowns. There have been three lockdowns in Ontario as of this point. Now, as of mid-July, 2021, the virus has calmed down in our province, yet the threat of variants of concern (VOCs) is still strong.

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 global pandemic March 11, 2020. A very contagious respiratory virus that spreads through close contact, breathing near one another, and not washing hands. Fast forward now to 15 months later. We wear masks to go inside anywhere. Retail stores and restaurants offer curbside pickup and takeout, sometimes delivery. The virus transmits easily between people, so many indoor activities are not allowed. We are not supposed to travel outside our regions and non-essential travel outside the country is not allowed.

I immediately signed up as a volunteer driver for Meals on Wheels. We deliver meals to people who are scared to go shopping, or with compromised health conditions. The want was high, and several volunteers quit when the pandemic started, so the need was great. I did that for seven months. It was an extremely rewarding opportunity to help the people who need it.

Then I accepted a position at the local hospital in Napanee as a Runner at a COVID Assessment Center. An opportunity to work in my hometown and working on the front line. I was all in.

I started the runner position, which paid $15.00 an hour, in-between lockdown 1 and lockdown 2 in Ontario. A side note: My career was in business and banking. I had no experience in a medical clinic setting. It is interesting to notice the new types of jobs created from the pandemic. Screeners, runners, COVID swab nurses, and others.

The first wave roared in April 2020. The summer was quiet with all group activities cancelled, however the case numbers went down until the beginning of September.

The second wave rolled in when I started at the end of September 2020. The clinic had just moved locations the week I began, so we set up as we worked. The plastic went up and the tape went on the floor to distinguish the waiting rooms. Arrows and signs to navigate the patients. Tables erected, printers and photocopiers in place – Check.

We were a team put together to help fight COVID-19.

As a team, we were taught how to navigate and assist patients through the testing process. There were difficult times for sure. A common symptom of the PCR (polymerase chain reaction) nasal swab is sneezing, eyes watering, and pure irritation. When a children had to be tested, we gave them extra time. They were scared and it was our jobs to help them through the frightening time. Everyone was very brave to us. We clapped as a team many times.

The phones were ringing off the hook for test appointments. We were working with two runners at the same time, making the kits and batching them in time order. There are three types of kits to complete: PCR, Rapid and Saliva. The runner had to run the tests to the hospital two to three times a day for pickup to take to Kingston for results.

The third lockdown started early April. The month of March had many outbreaks in the community, and we were testing over 200 patients a day. At our busiest points, we were bringing in five people every 15 minutes with three nurses and a doctor rotating through the rooms. There are now variants of concern (VOC) that are highly contagious. The pandemic continues to change very quickly. It is hard to keep up sometimes.

As a runner, my duties are simple: To organize kits by date and time. In half hour bundles when the surges are high. We start at 8 a.m. The first patient is 8:30 a.m. We check off our list of pre-registered appointments for missing kits, then get busy putting the PCR kits together with three items: The requisition, the swab, and the vial.

A patient calls in to the clerk. The clerk screens the patient and books the appointment. The clerk fills in a requisition with the patient’s health information, the date, and time. The requisition comes to the runner. I figure out what kind of test it is first: PCR, Rapid, or Saliva tests. Also, we have a doctor on site to assess severe respiratory issues.

I put the appropriate kit together. Then run the kits to the nurses and doctor to be prepared for the patient appointment. We made kits for three days at a time organizing them for the next days.

I should add that, in the nice weather, we are a drive-thru assessment centre. As winter set in at the end of December, we had to set up a clinic inside. The runner then became the greeter and navigator of people in full PPE. Our indoor clinic was used from the end of December to the end of March 2021. The runner job had now completely changed.

It was intimidating at first to be in full PPE, standing beside COVID positive patients, helping people quickly come in, get tested, and go. It was a revolving door!

Most people were cooperative and did their duty for themselves and others by getting a COVID test.

Now it is July 2021. My last day at the clinic was June 27, 2021. The clinic is slowly being absorbed into the hospital setting. It is sustainable until the fall to see how successful the province re-openings progress.

The cases in Ontario are at an all-time low. The clinic is slowly winding down, and testing will be done differently. The nurses are showing people how to do the rapid test themselves. Staff still need weekly testing, and so do long-term caregivers. Many long-term care homes are doing their own testing. Right now, it is calm. I hope it stays this way. In Ontario we still wear our masks and distance. Some provinces are reopening slowly. Ontario is reopening very carefully, three weeks at a time.

My front-line experience and memories are running back and forth to the hospital with the COVID swabs for pickup to go to Kingston, supporting the nurses and doctor with missing kits, figuring out appointment issues, and being on hand for any unseen problems.

My hands now hurt from the 30,000 kits that I put together. However, it was a good cause and worth the effort. I now have the privilege of knowing a group of smart, special people that all came together for the same reason. Our team gelled like a family, and we will forever have the bond of working together through a pandemic.

Victoria (Tori) Maitland

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