The COVID-19 pandemic will likely be remembered by many for the isolation and separation it has required of many Manitobans. For the members of Manitoba's Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) team however, the experience has been nearly the exact opposite as team members have stepped into roles that have only become busier and required more collaboration as time has passed.
Meeting more regularly in the midst of the pandemic has been integral for the group of healthcare professionals that comprise the IPC team, as their role in providing education, guidance and support to facilities and communities across the province in relation to infection control practices has been critical throughout the past year.
Though the members of the IPC team always play an important role in supporting public health and staff education to prevent the spread of infections within healthcare settings, it became clear that their jobs were going to get a lot busier as the pandemic crept closer and closer to Manitoba's borders last spring.
"We train our whole career for moments exactly like this, so it was a time that we really focused on information gathering," said Jenelle DiMarco, a registered nurse and member of the IPC team based in Winnipeg. "We wanted to know all we could and to be as prepared as we could be when the time came."
"We normally meet four times a year via teleconference. During the pandemic, with an increase in IPC demands, the team agreed to meet every two weeks," said IPC team member Ginette Lafreniere, Regional Infection Control Coordinator with Southern Health-Santé Sud.
In other words, a global pandemic is when the rubber really hits the road.
As IPC meetings became more frequent, the team followed public health restrictions, which meant being restricted to videocalls throughout much of the pandemic. Despite the increased meetings, physical distance has made connecting with each other a challenge.
"Like everyone else, we have had to learn new ways of doing business, relying instead on virtual meetings and phone calls from site to site," added DiMarco. "We have new staff hired that many of us on the team have never met in person. The interesting thing is that we are all doing the same thing right now - focusing on COVID-19 - so in a lot of ways we are closer than ever because we are all focused on the same goals."
Though the team at the heart of coordinating Manitoba's strict health system protocols may be fixated on the same goals, there remains a great deal of diversity within the work of the team which is made up of doctors and nurses with a variety of experiences.
"The diversity of the role keeps the job very interesting and gives us a wide-ranging skill set," added team member Diana Aikens.
The provincial team is tasked with many responsibilities throughout the health system including protocol development, education, surveillance, and healthcare process reviews. Keeping healthcare facilities safe for patients and providers is their primary role, from keeping screening protocols updated and ensuring all healthcare workers have access to the latest information about the virus, to providing support and advice to areas dealing with an outbreak, the IPC team moves quickly between tasks, always ensuring they are on the same page.
IPC decisions are based on evidence and the latest information from around the globe but they also rely heavily on consensus decisions, respecting and trusting the knowledge and expertise each team member brings to a discussion, meeting, or in response to an outbreak.
"Different insights bring many perspectives, and sometimes some differing decisions. There has had to be adjustment into a not so black and white world," stated Prairie Mountain Health-based team member Treena Slate on how the group's diversity has created a stronger team.
With members spread across Manitoba and working in different health regions and facilities, the provincial IPC team has been exposed to very different opinions and perspectives, which team members credit for prompting more innovative and creative approaches to tackling the pandemic.
"With diversity comes some challenges, such as differences in professional opinion or ideas," noted DiMarco. "However, these challenges have made us stronger as a team and have provided us with the opportunity to visualize the pandemic through others' perspectives. In the face of constant change and the challenges that the pandemic has brought us, we have been able to adapt and apply our diverse experience and knowledge to fighting the virus."
"Infection prevention and control has multiple roles across our healthcare organizations and is embedded in all areas," said IPC member Jen Tomlinson who is based at Manitoba's largest hospital, Health Sciences Centre Winnipeg.
Adapting has perhaps never been so important in the healthcare field, as the IPC team has been responsible not only for keeping up with the fast-changing evidence and information but for working to keep ahead of it. With new information and evidence emerging daily, the team acknowledges it has been overwhelming at times to support staff on the frontlines who have been trying to safely care for patients.
Team members lean on one another, often verifying for one another that the guidance updated yesterday remains true today to ensure available resources remain up to date and that staff are provided with accurate information in response to questions.
"Infection Prevention and Control is everybody's responsibility, whether you work in housekeeping, a physical plant, allied health, nursing, or medical staff," said Lafreniere. "No one is exempt."
The IPC team continues to work closely together on the frontlines of pandemic response, updating guidance and supporting the safe restart of some services that were previously shut down while COVID case numbers in Manitoba remained high.
Working so closely together has created an atmosphere of learning for the whole team according to IPC members Patrice Lee and Amanda Preachuk.
"Collaborating with members from many healthcare settings has been another key part in developing and implementing infection prevention measures and finding creative solutions to the vast array of challenges," noted Lee. "It has been great learning from each other and understanding the roles each of us are responsible for."
While their work on COVID-19 is far from over and the members of the team acknowledge the challenges that exist in their roles, they are each obviously very passionate about the role they play as part of the greater healthcare system team and the role they each have played - together - in keeping staff and patients informed and safe.