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From 2016 to 2019, Abinaya Chandrabalan worked in Toronto Mayor John Tory’s office as a special assistant while completing her degree in nursing. 

Now, with her degree in hand, she’s moved from city hall to the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis, working as a nurse at Toronto’s Humber River Hospital in the Postpartum Mother-Baby Unit.

We spoke to Abinaya about her experience with the COVID-19 crisis in Toronto and discussed her concerns in the absence and anticipation of a vaccine.

What has your experience been like on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis? 

It has been overwhelming to say the least. Overwhelmed with the constant new changes in regards to policies and procedures. Overwhelmed with the fear of contracting COVID-19 and bringing it home. Overwhelmed with managing and supporting our patients' concerns regarding COVID-19. Overwhelmed with having to be behind personal protective equipment (PPE) for 12 hours (it becomes extremely uncomfortable). Overwhelmed thinking about what’s to come. When is this going to resolve? How is the PPE supply? And so on. 

What challenges have you and/or your team experienced?

In the beginning, the challenge was being able to get PPE. Initially, nurses across Ontario didn't have any PPE. 

Following the PPE, our concerns were regarding the numerous visitors our patients receive — the increased traffic on the unit, or even the hospital, increases in the chances of spreading, which have since been addressed. 

Another issue we were experiencing was staff shortage. There is an attestation form we fill out at the beginning of every shift, stating we do not have any of the COVID-19 symptoms. Should a nurse experience any of those symptoms, they have to be tested before they can come back to the unit. The tests were taking anywhere from six to nine days to come back, resulting in the unit being down an employee for that long. If there are even two people off for that long, you can see how it would cause a concern. Since, there has been an expedited process for health care workers, so results are coming back in 48 hours. 

A persisting challenge is staying on top of all the new updates. Things are constantly in motion, so on top of taking care of patients, you have to constantly find time to stay up to date with what has been changed.

What difficulties do you foresee as the health crisis persists? 

Definitely PPE, as everyone has been mentioning. But also the quality of health care that Canada will continue to provide. 

We are running on survival mode and, not to mention most importantly, safety mode. That means elective surgeries have been cancelled, non-urgent medical appointments have been cancelled, a lot of support services have been cancelled. 

For example, at Humber, we used to have a breastfeeding clinic available to new moms that had to be cancelled, for the right reasons — but this definitely affects new moms. A lot of quick decisions have been made Canada-wide to increase efficiency when caring for critical patients and increase safety, but it is not a sustainable solution for the longterm. So if this persists, I think a lot of these measures will have to be reassessed. 

Do you have adequate PPE and gear at your hospital? 

At this time, we have a face shield that we reuse and a limit of two masks per every 12-hour shift. Like every hospital, there is a fear of running out. I know Humber and other hospitals have received donations, but only time to tell how everything will pan out. 

What is a message you'd like to share with the general public amid the pandemic? 

The standard "stay at home" message of course, because it is definitely the best way to get a handle on this pandemic. There is no question about that. 

But I also want to tell everyone to take care of themselves. This is a difficult time for everyone, not only the essential workers. Be kind to yourself and those around you. It is a time of unknown and we know that causes a lot of angst, worry, fear, and loneliness. We have to all get to the other side of this together.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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