The toughest situations can often lead to the most innovative solutions. In the early days of the pandemic, examples abounded of companies pivoting to create products to combat the COVID-19 virus, from alcohol breweries and distilleries producing hand sanitizer, to hockey equipment companies making face shields. The case was the same for Brenda Weiss, Provincial Clinical Integration Coordinator for Shared Health in Manitoba.
With the province facing the challenge of needing to quarantine people who had no safe space to do so, Weiss had to pivot from her regular duties and was tasked with finding a solution for safe isolation while she herself was quarantining after a road trip with her husband was cut short by the onset of the pandemic in Canada.
"When my husband and I got back to Winnipeg, we needed to self-isolate at home, so I called Lanette (Siragusa) and said 'I am back, I am in isolation but I can work - what do you need me to do?'" said Weiss. "Lanette said she needed me to develop an idea that would provide COVID-positive and COVID-suspect individuals with a safe space to isolate and I should start reaching out to hotels."
The concept of using hotel rooms for safe quarantining, naturally dubbed "The Hotel Project" to start, had the original intent of serving healthcare workers who had either contracted or been exposed to the virus and didn't have a safe space to isolate at home. It soon became clear the program would be helpful for a variety of demographics, and after opening the first site on April 4, 2020, Weiss knew the project might expand beyond using hotels and gave the project a more fitting name - Alternative Isolation Accommodation.
"AIA was a term I came up with one night at 3 a.m. at my dining room table. I didn't want to call it The Hotel Project anymore, as we weren't always going to be utilizing hotel rooms for this program. The new name stuck," said Weiss. "At that time, no other province was looking at creating an AIA program. Nobody had ever really considered how healthcare workers and hotel staff could partner together. We were out on our own."
The concept grew as quickly as it had started, becoming an integral part of Manitoba's efforts against COVID-19 as it began to include many more Manitobans needing a place to self-isolate - travellers, those who live in crowded dwellings, vulnerable populations, and those experiencing homelessness.
"We see all ages, all nationalities, clients that are healthcare workers, travellers, people relocating back to Manitoba, international students, immigrants, refugees, people from rural or remote communities and people experiencing homelessness," said Weiss. "At the end of the day, these individuals made a difficult choice but have done a wonderful thing by isolating and helping to stop the spread of COVID."
As with any project that hopes to find success, Weiss knew she would need to pull in more team members to ensure the AIA sites would run smoothly.
For Weiss, recruitment began with three retired nurses who were soon joined by several dental assistants. Now, the AIA sites have occupational and physiotherapists, nursing students, paramedics and social workers among other health staff - a truly unique team of professionals who have given those in isolation access to all the resources they need.
For Manitoba's Chief Nursing Officer for Shared Health, Lanette Siragusa, the whole AIA program is a perfect example of what it means to be a team, and what can happen when we all unite to find a solution.
"Seeing people come together from all various walks of professional life join together to build the AIA program from the ground up in such a short period of time has been nothing short of inspiring to see," said Siragusa. "These people came together because they wanted to do something that helped Manitobans during a pandemic - and there is no question the AIA sites have been able to provide an amazing service for people that has helped slow the spread of COVID-19 in our communities."
Getting a wide array of professional practices involved proved valuable for the program's rapid growth. Only five days after opening their first site, a second site opened to serve those in Winnipeg experiencing homelessness, with Main Street Project contracted to lead this critical area of response in partnership with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority (WRHA). Although they had the first site to look to in preparing, just as much creativity was required to get the second site up and running.
"There is no blueprint for this work," said Sharon Kuropatwa, Director of Housing, Supports and Service Integration for the WRHA. "We had the provincial model to adapt from but we needed a site that was respectful and reflective of the people coming in - people with long histories of trauma, chronic homelessness, addictions, mental health issues and a distrust of systems. So the model really did need to be soup to nuts - referral and intake, transport, PPE and distancing measures, meals, recreation, spiritual care, harm reduction supports, clinical services - all in record time with partnered staff models and total uncertainty of the trajectory and what to plan for next."
Just as the AIA program expanded beyond the use of hotels, the program also expanded beyond the borders of Winnipeg and Manitoba. The tireless work that went into starting the first few AIA sites helped to start 22 sites in four of the province's five health regions, and the teams have shared advice with health professionals in Ontario and Saskatchewan as well. The program even produced a partnership with the Public Health Agency of Canada.
The program hasn't just expanded in area covered, but also in scope. The AIA sites aren't simply a place to isolate, but offer an array of healthcare support to those using the site, including access to primary care physicians, on-site visits from paramedics, addictions support, counselling and various cultural supports, both virtually and in-person. The program has been able to accommodate those with complex medical needs and has taken on lower-acuity patients released from hospital that still require care. On top of all that, staff have helped some clients who are new to the province to attain Manitoba Health cards, while also connecting some to community organizations to help them apply for jobs or find places to stay once their quarantine ends.
To call the AIA site operation a team effort almost feels like an understatement.
Being part of a project that has helped to keep so many Manitobans safe has been a privilege for Kuropatwa.
"I am honoured to have been part of a moment when we all needed to rise to the occasion and pull this massive ship forward and turn on a dime as the pandemic progressed and we learned and changed and changed again," said Kuropatwa. "It hasn't always been a smooth or easy process, but I am humbled and grateful for colleagues and partners who linked arms, stood up together and rode the wave to support those who needed us most."
For Weiss too, she could never have imagined where this project might end up, but she's proud of the creativity and cohesion that was spurred on by a unique problem posed by the pandemic.
"An incredible amount of work performed by many talented, dedicated healthcare professionals throughout the province has allowed us to assist thousands of clients in staying safe and stopping the spread of COVID-19 over the past year," said Weiss. "There have been some incredibly long hours and tough moments to navigate through, but I know our team will remember this time as one of the most rewarding experiences of our career."