As Cree Health Board and Social Services of James Bay continues to work intensively with partners to prevent, detect and control the spread of COVID-19 in Eeyou Istchee, frontline workers are adapting to new priorities while following the same precautionary distancing measures as everyone else.
“I do sense that some employees are anxious, but it is our job as Cree Health Board workers to remain calm and professional at work,” said Jeraldene Coon, the local lead for COVID-19 communications in Mistissini. “It’s normal now to ask how you are handling things – they say we’ll just go to the bush. We’re a good team here.”
Coon regularly updates clinic workers about new tools and self-care measures provided by Public Health. For instance, Dr. Rosie Khurana trained nurses in Mistissini a few weeks ago in skills required for the emerging health crisis. A video created during the sessions will be shared with other communities.
Regular bulletins also alert employees about current conditions and best practices. With personal protective equipment such as N95 surgical masks becoming a valuable commodity, new measures have been implemented to track inventories and ensure adequate supplies.
Health services across the region are diverting resources toward essential activities while minimizing face-to-face interactions. Most clinic and homecare consultations are now provided by telephone, while homecare workers are limiting visits to urgent matters, such as dressing changes and injections.
“It’s not a walk-in clinic like it used to be,” Coon told the Nation. “[Patients] have to call before coming. They started doing [prescription] deliveries at the pharmacy. People have to call 48 hours in advance for delivery. They use a stick to deliver the medication or wait until the client answers and leave it at their doorstep.”
Non-urgent medical appointments are now postponed until the crisis eases. At Chisasibi Hospital, only emergency visits are permitted – a security guard screens arrivals and ensures people wash their hands before entering. Dental care, meanwhile, is limited to emergencies.
As Elders are the most vulnerable, visits to old-age homes are suspended and people are strongly discouraged from seeing those living on their own. Nonetheless, families should remain available to deliver their food and other goods so that Elders don’t have to leave home.
Coon’s awareness project on the CHBSSJB Facebook page to protect Elders recently featured health-care staff promoting the message, “We stay here for you, please stay home for us.” It stems from her work with the youth department, which is trying to adapt recommendations for younger audiences.
“The youth target group is still our challenge,” explained Coon. “There are still social activities going on. They’re still partying. That’s why I want to work with the youth.”
To that end, she is planning a broadcast akin to a radio call-in show on social media in which she’ll ask medical experts to answer questions.
In an echo of the daily press conferences given by the prime minister and Quebec premier, CBHSSJB chairperson Bella Moses Petawabano makes regular updates on JBCCS radio at 3 pm. Community members can also access regional information online at eeyouistcheecovid19.org, which provides answers to frequently asked questions, specialized information for health professionals, as well as posters and videos for the general public.
“While our services in many ways have to be adjusted to accommodate this pandemic situation, the Cree Health Board needs our workers to be present,” said Petawabano. “We need to keep our services strong in the community so people don’t need to go down south. More than ever, we need all our staff present at work in the CMCs [Community Miyupimaatisiiun Centres]. All of our workers are essential.”
Meanwhile, a new toll-free telephone number has been established to help people who have specific questions about the virus – 1-866-855-2811. Callers are greeted with an automated message in Cree and English and asked to leave their name, phone number, community and question. A representative from the team of eight nurses will respond within the hour.
“The provincial information line was overwhelmed with calls and we found that the information provided was not applicable to the realities of our communities,” explained Patrice Larivée, a nurse counsellor who is leading the phone service team. “From there, Public Health Director Faisca Richer came up with the idea. It was just a matter of getting IT involved and I trained nurses on COVID-19 to be able to answer calls. It has been operational since last week.”
The hotline provides quick assessments of symptoms and refers callers to appropriate services when necessary. Another key motivation is to stop the spread of false information circulating on social media.
“The idea was to correct that and have a place where they could get accurate information,” Larivée elaborated. “People are concerned about all sorts of things. They’re afraid of being infected. They want to know what the symptoms and risk factors are, and what to do if somebody they know or live with is being tested for COVID.”
While most people are following social-distancing measures, local police have begun enforcing a prohibition on gatherings.
“People don’t understand the chain of transmission,” Larivée said in defending these more coercive measures. “You may think you will not get sick because you are young and healthy. But you have to consider more vulnerable people around you, especially young infants or the elderly, people who have chronic diseases.”
Those feeling overwhelmed in this crisis are advised to call their local CMC and ask for a mental health consultation. As well they should limit their time on social media and instead enjoy traditional activities outdoors. A new hotline to address mental health issues is now available at 1-833-632-4357.
“We do receive calls from people who are worried about it,” said Larivée. “It’s a long overdue service – besides COVID, it’s a great resource for the population.”
Self-care is especially vital for healthcare workers. Coon emphasizes that frontline personnel should take time for themselves, concentrating on mindfulness and maintaining healthy routines. Besides relieving stress through exercise, she recommended staying social through online tools.
“I know social distancing is hard but there is other stuff you can do,” said Coon. “Yesterday, I missed my friends so much that we decided to FaceTime – all seven of us! It was fun, especially using the filters and interactive games. We have to adapt to these norms for now.”