On the front lines: What life is like for a nurse at Montreal's pop-up COVID-19 testing site

With her blonde hair in a bun and wearing blue scrubs, Romy Boisseau projects an aura of no-nonsense that extends to how she talks about her job: checking people for a disease that has inspired fear in millions worldwide and caused mass shutdowns, lockdowns and quarantines.

As of Mar. 28, there have been more than 4,000 cases of COVID-19 in Canada, with more than 50 deaths reported.

"Everybody's a bit tired, but we're trying to keep things up," she said through a protective face mask as she headed back to work at the COVID-19 testing clinic set up at Place des Festivals in downtown Montreal.

"Everybody is in a good mood," she says, asked how morale is among her co-workers. She said they try to be reassuring as they answer each patient's questions.

"It's OK, we're going to get through this."

For Boisseau, getting through it means testing, testing and more testing. There's also evidence that mass detection is key to keeping cases from spiking on a societal level.

The temporary complex of white tents at Place des Festivals began operations on Monday with the goal of testing 2,000 people per day. The lag time between testing and diagnosis is two to four days.

Boisseau said it's been busy, but she's confident they can keep up the process for as long as it takes.

How she protects her family

Boisseau isn't naive about the risks she faces, being in contact with a steady flow of potential COVID-19 patients at her workplace, which has 30 testing stations in a large, heated tent.

At home, she follows strict protocols to protect her husband and two children from possible infection: taking off her clothes outside after her shift and washing everything she's worn right away.

"We're taking every precaution that we can to make sure that they're safe," she said.

Boisseau is one of 125 personnel working at the downtown site, run by the CIUSSS du Centre-Sud-de-l'Île-de-Montréal, every day.

The makeshift facility is open seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and can accommodate both walk-up and drive-through visitors.

Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada

For now, testing is limited to people who meet a specific set of criteria, like those who have recently travelled to a foreign country and are experiencing symptoms such as fever and chills.

Quebec's top public health official, Dr. Horacio Arruda, has said the province's initial strategy was to target testing as tightly as possible — to those deemed most at risk of having COVID-19.

Arruda and Premier François Legault have also constantly reinforced the importance of measures such as social distancing to "flatten the curve," with Legault calling for mass social solidarity in the face of the "greatest battle of our collective lives."

When asked what her message to Quebecers would be, Boisseau is emphatic: "Stay home. Don't go out," she said.

"Be as far as you can from other people, and it's going to flatten the [curve]."