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The calm before the storm: One year of COVID-19 at PHSA

PHSA employees in public health, supply chain, health emergency management and communications reflect on their work and teams in this first part of a series highlighting one year of working through COVID-19 at PHSA.
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Think back to a year ago – what were you doing? Probably nothing out of the ordinary. Commuting to work, where things functioned as usual. Seeing friends and hugging them. Planning vacations that would take you out of province or maybe overseas. 

Then came news of a mysterious virus originating out of Wuhan, China. Then the announcement that this virus had made its way to other countries – then Canada – then B.C. After that, everything changed. 

PHSA has been at the forefront of the COVID-19 response in the province, mobilizing quickly and answering the call of a global pandemic. Decisions had to be made rapid-fire. New processes were set up extremely quickly. And keeping our patients, clients and families – and our workforce – safe remained a top priority. But we rose to the challenge, and one year later, we’re still living and working like we never have before. In this first part of a series highlighting one year of COVID-19 at PHSA, staff from various program areas across the organization share their personal reflections on the early days of the pandemic.

Faith in the human spirit

Réka---One-year-at-PHSA.jpgDr. Réka Gustafson, vice president, public health and wellness and deputy provincial health officer, is celebrating one year at PHSA, which began memorably as she spoke at a COVID-19 town hall on her very first day of work last February. Here she reflects on the people at PHSA and the BC Centre for Disease Control, and what they brought to one of the most challenging times in recent health care history. 

​​The calm before the storm: PHSA’s Supply Chain driven by duty and passion

Neil Mahar​​​aj, sourcing manager, COVID-19 response team in PHSA’s Supply Chain department, remembers how he felt when he heard that the first case of COVID-19 had hit B.C. “It was the calm before the storm,” he recalls. “I didn’t have enough information to fully understand the scope and gravity of the virus because it was still so new. But as the cases started to quickly climb around the world, I knew it was going to be a very difficult road ahead for us all.”

Neil looks back with pride at how quickly the Supply Chain’s COVID-19 response team came together to help frontline workers get what they needed to treat patients.

Neil Maharaj Amar Gill Supply Chain.jpg “So many times, the supply chain hit roadblock after roadblock trying to get personal protective equipment (PPE) into B.C., and everyone just kept pushing on into the early hours of the morning,” he remembers. “In the face of frustration, overwhelming challenges and exhaustion, I cannot recall anyone saying, ‘That’s not my job,’ or ‘I need a vacation,’ or even ‘Let’s take a break.’ It was so inspiring to work alongside a team driven by duty and passion in an emergency situation.”​(Neil is pictured above on the left with his colleague, Amar Gill, project manager for the advanced solutions team in Supply Chain and member of the COVID-19 response team, in front of PHSA's Langley Fulfillment Centre.)
A year later, the Supply Chain team is still working hard, but Neil feels more relieved having weathered very difficult days when the global supply chain was stretched to extremes. “Currently members of the supply chain are working on the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and ensuring we have all the necessary injection products available,” he explains. “B.C. is turning the tide right now, but I’m still very realistic about the new and unknown challenges we will eventually face in supply chain. Even so, I am confident that our team has what it takes to get the job done. We’ve done it before – we can do it again.” ​

Clear and consistent​: Answering to the media

When a new virus takes the world by storm, everyone wants to talk about it. Media outlets began calling for more information in early January 2020. “In the week leading up to the announcement of the first case in B.C., the level of media interest got really intense,” communications officer Jane Campbell remembers. “I’d sometimes be on the phone with one reporter and by the time I hung up, I’d have two voicemails with more requests.” 

jane vincent collage.jpg“We knew we'd get some media interest, but I certainly did not anticipate how everyone's lives would ​be changed forever due to this virus," says Vincent Chou, another communications officer on the media relations team. “We learned how important clear and consistent communication is during times like these." Both Jane and Vincent are proud of how their team worked together, stayed focused and supported each other. “Working with the media can be stressful at times and emotions have been high all around during the pandemic," Jane says. “Being part of a strong team made the work much easier." (Pictured above: Jane and Vincent during a rare, quiet moment not fielding media calls.)​

Flexible and nimble: Health Emergency Management BC rises to the occasion

Jamie Carballo_Profile.jpgAfter a year of working with her team supporting over a dozen pandemic-related projects, Jamie Carballo, manager of planning and operations for Health Emergency Management BC’s (HEMBC) Mobile Medical Unit (MMU), remains hopeful about a future of co-existing with COVID-19. “Vaccinations rolling out across the country gives me comfort that soon, we’ll be able reconnect with friends and family over food and drinks, instead of Zoom,” she says.

Lavery mountains.jpgJohn Lavery, executive director of HEMBC, remembers first hearing about the novel coronavirus from a colleague who works for the World Health Organization. “I remember thinking, ‘This is going to get serious,’” he recalls. “As a program, we started getting ready, because we knew we would start to see cases of the virus in B.C.” Jamie was “nervous and anxious hearing about such a new virus.” It seemed inevitable that with travel and globalization, everyone was going to be greatly impacted. 

In January 2020, HEMBC began working with the health authorities to support the activation and management of response structures, including the health system’s network of emergency operati​​​on centres across the province.

At the same time, HEMBC supported the coordination of two Canadian repatriation flights from Wuhan, China, en route to a Canadian Air For​ce (CAF) base in Trenton, Ontario, with the Public Health Agency of Canada, Vancouver International Airport and Vancouver Coastal Health.

“T​​hese flights stopped in Vancouver to refuel, and there were a number of long days and nights at the airport,” John says. “There were so many unknowns, ​​but as a team, this is what we do. We manage emergencies and we don’t always know what to expect. We were preparing for everything.” A series of projects began for the MMU team, ranging from setting up one of the first drive-through assessment sites in the Lower Mainland to utilizing the MMU as a COVID-19 medical unit at Abbotsford Regional Hospital with our Fraser Health partners. 
Mobile Medical Unit and team members
The MMU team at Vancouver Convention Centre in March 2020. (The mask mandate was not yet implemented, but the six feet of social distancing was!)​

John praises everyone at HEMBC across the province for their determination and tenacity through a tough year. “There are so many things I’m proud of,” he exclaims. “Mainly I’m just so humbled by and grateful for everyone’s willingness to jump in and solve problems, even if it wasn’t their usual line of work. What we accomplished in such short periods of time amazes me. The question was always “How can I help?” and working in that kind of environment was – and is – empowering.” Jamie agrees – “Our team remained flexible and nimble throughout everything and continues to do so.”

John emphasizes that everyone at HEMBC has not stopped. “Everyone is still flat out," he says. “We are still exercising immense flexibility, innovation and creativity in everything we do. It's been a hard year and we're living this pandemic professionally and personally, so I know we're all tired. But I'm hopeful, and I see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Adapting to relentless changes

Portrait of Mel KrajdenWhile the work of lab ​medicine is often invisible, this program area has been at the forefront of our pandemic response since the beginning. Dr. Mel Krajden, medical director of the Public Health Lab at BCCDC, spoke about our incredible staff who have continued to adjust and react to constant change.
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