Fire chief barely survived ‘truly tough go’ with COVID

·6 min read

Anyone not yet convinced that COVID-19 is a significant threat to their lives should listen to Mattawa Fire Chief Paul Lafreniere describe how it turned his life upside down for most of February.

“It was a truly tough go,” Lafreniere said. “I was truly fortunate, I believe, to come through it like I have with underlying health issues and I'm not 15 anymore.”

At 60 years old and diabetic, he represents a growing proportion of the age and health demographic often hit hard by the corona virus and its variants causing the COVID-19 disease.

Lafreniere said he was driving a friend to an appointment on February 11 when his passenger, a resident of the Lancelot apartment building that was hit with an outbreak of the ‘South African’ variant, got word that his test for the virus came back positive. Both were wearing masks and the fire chief, who is the primary caregiver to his 88-year-old mother, said he is “very diligent” and was taking the recommended precautions.

See February 12 story: Lancelot COVID total hits 26

“I sit on the COVID Assessment Committee here in Mattawa, I wear my PPE (personal protective equipment), I do, you know, everything appropriate,” he said. “This strain that was at Lancelot is one of the variants. It's highly, highly contagious. So it only takes one contact, one misstep, one whatever. And I was in close contact, still wearing appropriate PPE, but I did get it.”

He doesn’t know if he picked up the virus through airborne or surface transmission.

“Well, it could have been as simple as touch a surface that was infected and then transfer it to my, you know, my mask, regardless, I did get it,” he said.

Fortunately, his family had a residence available for him to isolate straight away and wait for his test results, which indicated three days later that he was infected.

“I went from his place to here, parked my truck, got out and they brought me everything I needed to be isolated,” he said, thankful he didn’t put anyone else at risk unknowingly.

“I’m so lucky I didn't have to work hard. The fire department was really quiet and I have a good crew that had everything covered while I was out,” he said, adding there were about five days where he was near dead to the world.

“I wouldn’t wish this on anybody, not even my worst enemy,” Lafreniere said. “And it was very, very quick onset of symptoms. From three days (after the positive result) I felt like, ‘OK, I got lucky,’ I thought. And then the next day I was … I had a hard time breathing and massive, massive fog, shoulder pain, joint pain in my elbows, arms, and about a five-day period where any kind of activity was really, really strenuous.”

He didn’t come out of isolation for 17 days to make sure he was clear of the virus, adding provincial health advice suggests somebody is safe from infecting others after four days without symptoms but nobody will guarantee it.

“I had no fever, nothing else that would have indicated (he had been sick) other than I had no energy left,” he said. “I was really drained, but I didn't want to bring that back home. My mom's 88, you know, I'm her principal caregiver – I don't want to take any chance that I'm going to transfer it. So it took a few extra days.”

Lafreniere thinks he may be one of the lucky ones who don’t have long-term effects but there’s no way to know at this point.

“I'm going to say I'm back to 100 percent from where I was before,” he said. “It took a long time for the brain fog, that's what I'm going to call it, to clear. Simple tasks were difficult, the thinking process was just out of skew, kind of feel normal, and then little things that make you say, ‘What? How come I can't? What's going on?’ but all that's gone now, I feel like, I think, I'm back to 100 percent.”

His friend, who is 20 years younger, suffered even more than him and is still recovering.

“He did a lot worse than I did, he was severely impacted and he's much younger than I am,” Lafreniere said. “He still has some minor symptoms, but, yeah, he's on that recovery path … he says every day he is better, so I'm very hopeful that he stays on that … again, it's different with everybody. Like, I'm 60 with underlying health conditions. And I come, as far as I'm concerned, through it relatively unscathed as far as you know.”

Lafreniere said it’s been too short of a time for anyone to really understand the impacts the virus is having on people’s bodies.

“Who knows what your organs (will do in the future) or whether you have underlying health issues that were impacted by it. The health unit doesn't have the data yet,” he said. “We've only been in this for a short period of time.”

His recommendation for anyone who is on the fence about how to approach COVID is to be vigilant and keep their guard up at all times.

“I'm going to recommend that they take it as seriously as they possibly can and protect everyone, including yourself, from being exposed to it, because we're not out of this yet,” he said. “Like, there has to be a significant change in people's attitude before we can get a handle on it, get everybody immunized and protect everybody and the people you love.”

This isn’t a time to let up on safety protocols, he said.

“The variants are going to definitely impact where we go with it, how it's going to affect health, what the long term causes are is yet to be determined, and until we gain all of that information, treat it like it's life-altering – because it is.”

Lafreniere said he is learning of more and more people who have been touched by the virus.

“I know people that have lost their family members to it, young people like my wife's cousin. He was 50 in Montreal, he passed away and it affects people,” he said. “You hear about children, young kids that you know … certainly the elderly are most impacted, whether it's the fact that they're frail or they just can't overcome whatever the virus is doing to them.”

Small towns could be overrun with it quickly, he cautioned.

“We can't have it in our community in Mattawa,” he said. “I think of the people and I look at our nursing home and our hospital situation – we can't afford to get that in our community.”

Dave Dale is a Local Journalism Reporter with LJI is funded by the Government of Canada.

Dave Dale, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter,