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Front-line workers in Canada reflect on the toll of a year dealing with COVID-19

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    TORONTO, Ontario (CTV News) — Shortly after the first case of COVID-19 was detected in Canada, front-line workers including nurses, teachers and grocery store employees had to change how they work in order to keep themselves and Canadians safe.

On Jan. 25, 2020, Canada’s first COVID-19 case was announced, setting in motion a series of safety measures that soon changed how many conduct their work, schooling, and even simple tasks such as shopping to help limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.

These changes have impacted everyone, especially those working on the front lines of the pandemic. A year later, those workers are reflecting on what the past 12 months have been like for them.

For Chelsy Vanderberg, an emergency room nurse at the Grey Nuns Hospital in Edmonton, Alta., the COVID-19 pandemic seems more “under control” than it was a year ago. However, she said the first few months were “really scary.”

“A year ago it seemed almost like a full panic. Even though the numbers that we had were not that high at all, it was this new virus, this new thing that we were thrown and had to deal with,” Vanderberg told CTV’s Your Morning on Monday.

“You’d go home, and the next day, there’d be something totally new that you had to put into place in order just to prepare for the numbers that we anticipated coming,” she added.

Vanderberg said hospitals have “come a long way” since the start of the pandemic in preparing for spikes in infection numbers and surges of people being admitted to ICUs.

Despite this, Vanderberg said it’s “terrifying” that she and her husband, who is a paramedic, could potentially spread COVID-19 to their two young children because of their jobs.

“Even though kids, their symptoms seem minor, it doesn’t mean they’re not getting sick so you can’t help but feel responsible or this feeling of guilt if you were to be the reason your kid got sick,” Vanderberg said.

Vanderberg received a COVID-19 vaccine a few weeks ago and says being among some of the first front-line health-care workers to get a shot was “overwhelming.”

“When I walked into the room to get the shot… emotion just like overtook me and I was extremely grateful… I was really, really proud to be considered somebody so worthy of getting the first [shot] because I do know that there are millions of people in the world that need this,” she said.

While the past year has been tough, Vanderberg said it has taught her a valuable lesson in knowing her limitations at work. She explained that she started experiencing chest pain and headaches a couple months ago, which a doctor diagnosed as a physiological response to stress.

Despite reaching a breaking point, Vanderberg said it was humbling to be reminded that she also has to take care of herself.

“What I’ve learned and my husband’s learned and my co-workers support is that we have limits, and we have to really, really be aware of how far we can push ourselves before we need to take a step back and say like, ‘We’re not OK, we need a break’,” Vanderberg said.

One group of Canadians that has been severely impacted by COVID-19 are those working and living in long-term care homes.

Michelle, who works as a long-term care worker in Kamloops, B.C., told CTV’s Your Morning on Monday the past year has caused her anxiety and depression. As cases climb and the risk increases, she says it is difficult to show up for work every day, but noted that taking a personal day isn’t an option.

For privacy reasons, Michelle has asked that her last name and the name of the care home she works at not be included.

When personal support workers arrive at the care home each morning, Michelle explained that they are screened before they’re allowed to enter and if someone does not pass the screening test, they’re not allowed to return to work until they have a negative COVID-19 test. She says this adds to everyone’s workload for the day.

“We are short for the day because there’s just not enough staff. So that means that we have extra work, instead of eight residents we have 12 residents to get up [but] care has to continue,” Michelle said.

If one employee can’t work, she said that results in other staff members not being allowed to take breaks as they’re not able to leave the residents they’re looking after.

However, Michelle said her fellow employees really “pull together as a team” in those situations.

“People are still getting their personal care, they just might not get as much one-on-one time with us,” she said.

Michelle says one of the most difficult aspects of working in long-term care amid the pandemic has been having to regularly explain to residents why they can’t see their loved ones in person. With many of her residents suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia, Michelle said they forget that there is a global pandemic going on.

“You get them and they’re like, ‘Why can’t my mom come?, Why can’t I go outside?, Why can’t I do what I used to do?’ and it’s been the same questions for the last year… Meanwhile, they see cars go by, they see the kids go to school, so it’s a little hard for them to understand,” Michelle explained.

Michelle says seeing residents upset over not having visitors is “heartbreaking.”

“We try to use FaceTime for them to see [relatives], but a lot of the residents can’t quite understand why their loved one is inside of a device and not across the table from them,” Michelle said.

With the pandemic shifting many students across the country to online classes, Ontario teacher Mary Marcello says “all the joyful parts of being a teacher are just non-existent” with the new learning model.

Marcello, who teaches a Grade 2/3 split class with one grade online and the other in class, told CTV’s Your Morning that teachers are not able to see their students engage with the material when working online, making it difficult to measure their success.

“A lot of times when I’m speaking to my students, their cameras are off. They’re not responding and so sometimes I don’t even know if they’re on the other side of the screen, and that ability to analyze and assess if they’re accessing the material or understanding it is just gone,” Marcello said in an interview on Monday.

Marcello has been a teacher for 22 years and said she misses being able to meet the students’ needs in a “meaningful way.” She says the classroom environment is not one that can be transferred online.

“Children, especially young children, they need that opportunity to engage with one another, to have opportunities of exploration, peer collaboration, and to replicate that on an online platform is not easy,” Marcello said.

To help combat the stress of her ever-changing classroom, Marcello, who is also a mother of three, said she has been working to prioritize self-care and her mental health.

“I am learning to understand that there are things I cannot control — I can’t control the pandemic, I can’t control the decisions being made in education — but I can control what I’m putting on my priority list,” she explained. “So I am trying to put myself and my family on that priority list, and we are trying to make time to disconnect from all devices and get outside and connect with one another.”

While she acknowledged that the past year amid the COVID-19 pandemic has “been a year like no other,” Marcello said she is working to keep a balance between her job and her family.

“We all want to make everything work, and so I want to make it work for my students at school, and I want to make it work for my children at home,” Marcello said.

While COVID-19 altered how kids learn, it also changed how children with special needs get care.

April Stauffer, a clinical supervisor at One Care Therapy in Oshawa, Ont., was laid off with 50 of her staff in March, but continued to provide support and learning material for families and children with autism.

Stauffer told CTV’s Your Morning on Monday that she has a “responsibility as a professional and ethically” to continue providing care for these families, despite not knowing if she would be compensated for her work.

“Just knowing if I’m under that much stress and I don’t have the added layer of a child with autism; the amount of monumental stress that these families must be under. I was just trying to do everything I could along with my team to provide as much support as possible,” Stauffer explained.

Stauffer says she and her colleagues pivoted to providing care online through Zoom video calls and by dropping off assignments on families’ doorsteps.

“We very quickly had to find a compliant online platform… There were a number of families that are not computer savvy so we were doing phone check ins, I had staff members dropping off materials on front porches for doing games with their children. It was just all hands on deck,” she said.

While online support has been an adjustment, Stauffer said the use of teletherapy has allowed those who work with children with special needs to involve the parents “a lot more” in the day-to-day therapy programs.

However, Stauffer says she looks forward to when she can work with the children in-person again.

“I can’t wait to see groups of children playing and singing together again, and we know that will happen at some point, and until then we’re being creative and allowing children to visit through windows and bubble in very small groups when it’s appropriate,” Stauffer said.

Mallory Myers, a team member at Vince’s Market in Sharon, Ont., told CTV’s Your Morning that at the start of the pandemic, customers were getting frustrated with the new safety rules including physical distancing and store capacities, as well as stocking issues.

“I know that the beginning was stressful and everything was new. So, when walking in and the store is empty, and we’re all wearing masks and there’s plexiglass up, it was definitely strange and something to adjust to,” Myers said on Monday.

Myers noted that changes to in-store policies were a “large adjustment for everybody” in the food supply chain.

“We tried to do our best to keep the shelves stocked, but it’s not only up to us. There’s people we were counting on that couldn’t get it as well so the shelves were a little empty to begin,” Myers said.

However, Myers says stocking issues were quickly rectified and now, the store has no problems keeping products on the shelves or with customers following the safety guidelines.

“Our customers are just so appreciative of everything we’ve done to make sure they’re able to get everything on their list,” Myers said.

While working at a grocery store may not be as intense as working in a hospital, Myers explained that she and her fellow employees are “100 per cent putting [them]selves at risk every day” to ensure Canadians can put food on their tables.

Myers said it is the teamwork of her fellow employees that has helped her get through the first year of the pandemic.

“At the beginning it was very individual, all of our team members were staying away from each other, you’re trying not to talk too much even though you are wearing masks — it was very grim, but now I think we work together as a team,” she said.

“We were always a family, but now more than ever I think I see that family… work together better than ever.”

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Article Topic Follows: Regional News

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