Lingering lessons of COVID-19 will help shape our future

·7 min read

If you have a vision of the COVID-19 pandemic ending with everyone throwing their face masks in the air like mortarboards at graduation, you may be in for a rude awakening.

Even as vaccines roll out and cases start to fall, infectious disease experts don’t see face masks disappearing any time soon.

“One big change over the past year that I think is going to be around for a little while longer — or maybe for a long while longer — is the idea of face masking,” Dr. Natalie Bridger said in a recent interview.

“A year ago, that would have been completely foreign for all staff and patients in an indoor setting to be masked. Honestly, I can’t see us going back any time soon to going unmasked.”

Bridger, Eastern Health’s clinical chief of infection prevention and control in St. John’s, says masks have played an important role in keeping other respiratory viruses at bay, including influenza.

“Some parts of the world have been masking for many years and it’s part of the culture now. Maybe that’s going to part of our culture,” said Bridger.

“I know people will be not pleased to hear me say that.”

But her thinking aligns with that of Newfoundland and Labrador’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Janice Fitzgerald.

“Certainly, I think physical distancing is something that we need to be thinking about on a regular basis,” Fitzgerald said during a recent video update. “Masks will probably be something that persists fairly far into the future.”

The past year has taught a lasting lesson in how the health-care system needs to be better prepared.

“A year ago, our biggest worry was that we were going to run out of personal protective equipment (PPE), so we’re making all sorts of contingencies for that," Bridger says.

That much of it is now being made locally is a huge bonus, she said, since one of the first victims of COVID-19 turned out to be stable supply chains.

But it’s impossible to be completely prepared for the next pandemic.

“Everything has the potential to be a little bit different,” she said. “Who knows what the next big threat will be. Maybe it will be a virus that has an incubation period of 30 days or something crazy like that. That would be my absolute nightmare.”

At least now, most of the public has a real-world idea of what to expect.

“My non-medical family members are better epidemiologists than I am, which is not saying a lot,” she joked.

One saving grace of surviving a pandemic in an age of technology is the ability to connect online. For example, Bridger has learned much of her work at her pediatric clinic can be done virtually.

“Because if a family doesn’t have to get on the road and come over in the middle of winter to the Janeway (hospital) to see me, I think that’s safer, it’s more economical and, in a lot of ways, can be better care.”

In-person care is still irreplaceable, but work meetings? Not so much.

“I can’t really envision us gathering 20 or 30 people in a boardroom for the foreseeable future,” said Bridger.

In the art world, remote technology was also a lifesaver. Orchestras and choirs, theatre companies and songwriters all moved online, as fans watch comfortably from home.

While many arts and sports organizations reluctantly cancelled festivals and tournaments, the Tuckamore chamber music festival forged ahead, celebrating its 20th year almost entirely online.

Was it a success?

“Almost remarkably so,” board chair Josh Smee said. “Feedback from the audience was very positive, by and large.”

With things still up in the air, the festival is tentatively planning another hybrid festival for 2021.

“There’s no replacement for doing things in person,” Smee said. “An in-person festival will always be the gold standard, but I do think for Tuckamore and other arts organizations, there will be elements of this that we will want to carry forward.”

Smee is also chief executive officer of Food First NL, a non-profit agency that promotes food security in the province, from production to access to consumption to disposal.

The pandemic lockdown last spring highlighted the extent of the food vulnerabilities many families experience.

Food First NL already had some experience grappling with an emergency during the so-called Snowmageddon in January 2020, which shut the St. John’s area down for a week.

“During Snowmageddon, we were pretty quickly aware that one thing that didn’t exist was a centralized point of access, even to information about just where to go for supports in an emergency. That just hadn’t been done before,” Smee said.

Food First has since become a hub for information on numerous groups around the province providing access to food for those who need it.

One lesson learned? Along with the usual clients who rely on charities, a crisis brings out people who are what Smee calls "marginally food insecure."

“They’re households that it’s not necessarily that they don’t have food in the house, but there’s some uncertainty in where your next meal is coming from, and then this pushes you over the edge.”

However, Smee says expanding Food First’s role in emergency aid actually defeats its original purpose.

“It’s still a Band-Aid on an open wound,” he said. “There are never going to be enough resources to meet all the need because what we’re really doing is we’re addressing a systemic problem with an emergency intervention right now.”

Charities may be a symptom of poor social policy, but charity is also part of the human condition.

If the pandemic taught us anything, says Stephen McNeil, it's the virtue of slowing down and considering those around us.

“We pride ourselves on being a friendly part of the world, which we are, but one of the things this pandemic has taught us — and I think actually re-instilled in us — is slowing down a little bit and checking on our neighbours and finding new, creative ways to connect,” said McNeil, who stepped down as premier of Nova Scotia last month.

“And my hope is that will remain as part of our community.”

McNeil’s counterpart, former Newfoundland premier Dwight Ball, agrees. Despite some of the stress and anxiety that bubbled to the surface, he saw the best in people shine through.

“I have always appreciated what we have here as a province and our ability to work together, but not like now,” Ball said. “I mean, Newfoundland and Labrador really stepped up and did a remarkable job.”

McNeil and Ball say the Atlantic bubble, which allowed for freedom of movement between all four provinces, proved to be a model for the rest of the country.

“To me, that sent a signal to the rest of Canada,” said Ball. “Look after your borders, get your numbers down and you can actually move about within your regions.”

But, Ball added, the situation with rotational workers showed how different segments of the health-care system were at odds.

“I believe it’s the rotational workers and their families that have been the one group in our province that have really felt the restrictive measures of COVID,” he said.

Ball said he hopes there’s a larger discussion about how public health can better align with other crucial pillars of the system, including chronic and acute care and mental health.

“We need to have that discussion and decision-making, not in isolation, but how one impacts the other. … We can’t have it to the point where one dominates the other three areas of health care.”

Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram