Public Health Nurses a vital part of the fight against COVID-19
By Mike Daly
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Monday, May 10, 2021
Public Health Nurse Michely Berger hasn't visited her office in ACCESS Transcona much over the past year, but although she misses it, she wouldn't have had it any other way.
Berger was one of the first Public Health Nurses to volunteer as a contact tracer/case investigator. Contact tracing helps limit the spread of COVID-19 by identifying and notifying people who may have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus.
"Contact tracing is vitally important in the fight against COVID-19," she says. "The whole idea is to flatten the curve by limiting exposure to those who have, or who may have been exposed, to the virus. That helps break the chain of infection."
Berger joined the WRHA COVID-19 Centralized Team for contact tracing in March of last year, when large outbreaks were largely restricted to other countries, many of which were overseas. Unfortunately, it wasn't long before Manitoba was dealing with high numbers of its own, at which point things "got real" in a hurry.
"Once we started losing people to COVID-19, I would say that that’s when it became real," Berger says, adding that, for her, those deaths were anything but a statistic.
"It's not like you just read a person’s name or you just heard it on the news. It wasn’t as if they passed away and that was all there was. We continued talking with their families to make sure they weren’t being becoming symptomatic, and that they were well. Every day, we were talking and they were sharing their loss. It was different than anything I had ever experienced."
The sorrow of that situation was difficult to grapple with, even for a nurse.
"As nurses we try not to become too emotionally involved, but we’re human and that’s going to happen," Berger says. "I think it for me, it really made me realize that if we didn’t do our job, the numbers would continue to go up. Sadly, even though we were doing our utmost, the numbers did rise. It was frustrating to witness, and it had such a huge impact on me."
The work of contact tracers remains vital, especially as new variants of the virus emerge.
"We want to make sure people are being candid about their contacts, because if they have the education on what they’re supposed to be doing to mitigate risk, we can reduce the rate of infection. Many people feel like they might get in trouble or there might be some kind of repercussions associated with listing their contacts. We’re really trying to get them to share as much information as they have. Our job continues to be trying to protect as many people in Manitoba as we can."
That job took Berger to the front lines in January as part of a team working to investigate an outbreak in a First Nation community
"Working in the community was a different challenge," she says. "The community is small and they have some factors - such as multiple generations of a family living in the same home - that impacted how quickly COVID-19 was spread. When an outbreak occurred, it was more difficult for them to keep up with the contact tracing case load."
Berger was impressed with how well the community rose to the challenge.
"We worked with local health-care staff and the local government to implement new processes for contact tracing and the sharing of information. Those were implemented quickly, and within nine days, the backlog of cases was largely eliminated."
The community also worked with the Canadian Armed Forces to set up Alternative Isolation Accommodations (AIA), which helped to isolate those exposed to COVID-19 in order to protect the remainder of the community.
"Everyone in the community knew why we were there, and appreciated our support. They were very understanding. Never did anyone get angry being asked to isolate - something that happens quite often in Winnipeg. As a team, we were impressed with how hard they worked to combat the outbreak."
Back in Winnipeg, Berger admits to some feelings that feel out of place with respect to how much she's grown as a nurse over the past year.
"The work I've done during the pandemic is very different than what I normally do, and when I look at the big picture, it’s probably been one of the most rewarding periods of my career," she says. "That feels wrong to say in a year that's been so horrible for all Manitobans, but purely from a professional perspective, it's been an enlightening year, and I feel humbled to have been part of a different team that continues to make a real impact in the fight against COVID-19. I take great pride in being a nurse right now."
Mike Daly is a Communications Specialist with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.