COVID-19: Fear and Learning in an Ontario City
March 22, 2020
On Friday, March 13, I was tested for COVID-19.
The results came back negative five full days later. Five very long and anxious days. Five days of fear, wondering if I had exposed anyone else. Five days of fear of telling anyone that I was in isolation. Fear for my family, my newborn grand-daughter, my co-workers. Five days of coming to understand that the coronavirus pandemic is also a pandemic of fear.
Here is my story:
On March 7, 2020 I returned home from a 10-day vacation in Mexico with friends. When I left, COVID-19 was something happening in China, Iran and Italy. There were no travel restrictions, no airport screening, no announcements, no hand-outs, and no suggestion to self-isolate. In fact, at no point during my travel was it ever mentioned by my airline, the airport, or Canada Customs. The same for the flight home - nothing, not a word.
News about COVID-19 in Mexico was sparse. That being said, I stayed connected with media back home and wanted to make sure I was not a risk to others and vice-versa, so I googled Mexico's case numbers and risk assessment the day before flying back. I was relieved that there were no confirmed cases in Mexico and it was not listed as a country of concern on the national travel advisory website (it was later updated to 3 cases on the day I returned). I followed the advice of Health Canada - I washed my hands frequently and vigorously. I monitored symptoms. I had a mild 'dry cough' while hiking in the high-altitude and dusty Sierra Madres, and felt better once back on home soil. I practiced 'social distancing', per recommendations - thinking I was protecting myself from others, not the other way around.
I thought I was being responsible and doing the right thing. Over the course of the last two weeks, we have all learned that social distancing is simply not enough.
Late in the evening on Thursday, March 12, I received a text message from two friends who remained in Mexico for a longer vacation. They were feeling the symptoms associated with COVID-19. They had called a private doctor and were told there was no testing available, and the doctor told them that the whole thing was a 'hoax' anyway. They asked if I had any symptoms, and if so, could I be tested so that they would know if they were at risk to return home. I immediately self-isolated, as I still had mild symptoms. I called my doctor's office as soon as they opened the next morning, described the situation and was triaged for testing. I was instructed to pull into a parking spot at my medical clinic, where I was greeted by a testing team in protective mask and gown, swabbed and assessed and sent on my way. It was quick, efficient, and professional.
I've been asked by several people how I got tested when others could not. Trust me, it has nothing to do with being a city councillor (my file is under my maiden name Caron, so I doubt anyone in the office even knows I work for the city). I had travelled, I was symptomatic, and over 55 - three of the criteria that meet the test for a test.
I immediately made the decision to contact everyone that I may have come into contact with to let them know I was waiting for test results. It was hard to send out that message, fearing judgement. But it had to be done so that they could take measures to protect themselves and those with whom they had be in contact. This situation underlines how quickly the virus can spread from individuals by degrees of separation.
The waiting period has given time for much reflection. The thought of having possibly infected others is something I take seriously. Action to educate, quarantine and provide testing weeks earlier could have prevented my situation. Thankfully I did not visit my elderly father in long-term care, or my newborn grand-daughter.
Reflection leads to learning.
The time has come for more stringent local, provincial and national lockdown protocols. In my opinion, everyone is one degree of separation from someone who is carrying COVID-19. Many carriers. don't (and won't) even know they have it. You've heard of "flattening the curve" and "planking". We now know that it could take 6 - 18 months for COVID-19 to make its way through the population. The city has responded with closure of its arenas, pools, libraries, museums and public gatherings and City Hall staff have transitioned to work-from-home offices.
Dr. Michael Warner believes it is time for a full lockdown. See https://www.cbc.ca/player/play/1714164803998
COVID-19 will come and go, and in its wake there will be lessons to be learned globally and locally. Pandemic planning has been in place in Guelph (on a theoretical level) for years. Guelph enacted its Emergency Operations Response Team early and began putting plans into action quickly. Our Medical Officer of Health, and our Emergency Services and health care leadership and frontline staff are world-class. My respect for nurses, paramedics, doctors, transit drivers, public works staff and service providers in our community has never been higher. We are a caring and supportive community and it is showing. Residents are sharing online ("Caremongering Facebook group) and volunteering to help neighbours and strangers alike. And there is even room for humour.
This pandemic will provide policy-makers and health teams an opportunity to reflect on what worked and what didn't work, and make changes accordingly. My hope is that there is minimal loss of life along the way.
There has also been a lot of learning about the impact of fear. We have health care and public service workers who continue to do their jobs knowing they are at risk, yet also knowing their services are essential. All the stories we have heard hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizer are not indicative of our whole community. Hoarding is a fear behaviour. When we stick together and support one another, the fear is lessened and there will be enough to go around.
And finally, please self-isolate, even if you are not symptomatic. If you have no symptoms you may have come into contact with COVID-19 already and are not aware of it. The sooner you stay home and limit your outside contact, the better. Reach out to neighbours and friends via email and social media.
Let's all stay in touch. This won't be over anytime soon, and we are all in this together.