Picking one’s battles: COVID-19 and I

15 Déc 2020

This essay is part of a series of reflections on primary care during the pandemic presented by Réseau-1 Québec. The original essay published in French on November 3, 2020 is available here >>

Last March, the province was put on pause. Everything stopped. Everything, that is, except the health care system, which went into crisis management mode. The microscopic enemy triggered panic among the population and all involved in the health care system. We’ve never seen anything like it!

In primary care, practitioners were thrown into a state of chaos. Lots of questions and few answers. Mandatory reorganization: everyone in protection mode. Protecting others. Patients. The most vulnerable. Protecting ourselves from others, too, with our own vulnerabilities. We witnessed unprecedented situations: non-emergency surgeries cancelled, specialist physicians unable to practice, outpatient consultations stopped, activities jettisoned, massive reassignment of staff, most research activities halted. And all of this while the community was suffering through major turmoil with closures of businesses, schools, and regions.

In our health care organizations, everyone had to give thought to what they would do to redefine themselves. What role to play? Nothing was dictated. We had to build the plane and fly at the same time. As a researcher and family medicine clinician, I was faced with a choice: what part of the plane could I help build?

The colleagues in my family medicine group (FMG) were pioneers in applying the measures prescribed by the authorities. Champions. We banded together. Everything was reorganized. In this chaotic turmoil, as a researcher nearing the end of my career, I suddenly felt very useless. Protected by colleagues because of my age and hamstrung in my research, it was unthinkable to me that I would not contribute to the collective effort.

The call from public health was timely. Outbreaks were happening; professionals from all sectors had just been repatriated to public health. A medical team was needed to assist with epidemiological investigations. I jumped right in.

First, we had to learn the National Institute of Public Health’s interim recommendations (interim, as it turned out, was the key word) for community cases, for health care workers, for seniors’ residences, for CHSLDs. We also had to become familiar with the legal context: emergency measures, public safety, the powers of the public health department, quarantine law. Then juggling with risk management and its consequences. Quite a change for a clinician accustomed to treating patients individually, and for a researcher focused on patients with multiple chronic conditions! All this can be learned quickly when you accept that what’s true today may not apply tomorrow! After all, we’re building the plane!

From one day to the next, we found ourselves part of a relatively eclectic medical team: family doctors, emergency doctors, surgeons, specialists, professionals of all disciplines. All loaned to public health for different reasons and working for the same cause: the protection of patients and the community.

With the arrival of summer, we entered a lull. Activities were gradually resumed in a redefined way, that became, little by little, our new normal. In the clinic: teleconsultation, limited time allotted for face-to-face visits, distancing, protective equipment. In research, slow resumption of activities. Back to ethics committees with requests for modifications to protocols, consent, procedures. We had to adapt to a new reality in the field. COVID-19 was here, we couldn’t ignore it.

And the lull was short-lived. With the arrival of fall, Quebec deployed its system of color codes, no doubt inspired by the season, and regions that started out green transitioned to yellow, then orange, then red, at different rates. What does winter have in store for us?

Our governments have invested generously to help the population get through this. As have our research funding agencies. Several funding opportunities have been created to generate knowledge. We need to understand this virus, how it’s transmitted, what destroys it, what activates it, what reactions it causes in animals, in humans. We also need to understand the crisis we’re experiencing, its impact on the population, on children, on seniors, on the most vulnerable. In short, we have everything to learn. For many researchers whose work was on hold, this was an ideal opportunity to help answer these questions. Bravo, and thank you for putting your own research agenda aside and working for this cause that affects us all!

For my part, I made the choice to hold down the fort. I didn’t apply to any funding program. That wasn’t the call I felt. I stayed in the here and now, in crisis management. The crisis called out to me as a researcher, caregiver, and first responder, as well as to my fears; I needed to help make a difference by acting swiftly, I needed to attend to my own fears. Our surest defense at this time is to control spread, which involves rapid identification of cases and contacts, their stratification, and isolation. At first glance, this sounds simple, but implementation of these measures can be very demanding. Data collection is required, which has certain obvious constraints, and personalized analysis in real time. Each situation has to be assessed in its entirety. And you really have to play detective to identify the source, formulate hypotheses, and then try to validate them. In short, there are many elements that correspond to the skills required in research. So for me, it made sense. And finding in the public health team, however eclectic it may be, the same values that I expect from my research collaborators motivated me to come on board. Caring, vigilance, rigour, adaptability, resilience, these are all attributes that I have found in my colleagues—physicians, nurses, kinesiologists, nutritionists, dental hygienists, occupational therapists—all working with a single goal: to help curb the spread of the invisible enemy using a transdisciplinary approach; a concept I learned in research but that I’m truly experiencing in public health!

As of October 22, a PubMed search identified 66,496 articles on COVID-19. My contribution to this research was nil. As of October 22, the Saguenay Lac-St-Jean region had 891 cases of Covid-19, including 290 active cases, and 1,229 people were in isolation at the time of writing, or about 0.5% of the population. All our efforts are aimed at keeping these figures as low as possible. It may be that I’m disappointing my university by not participating in the research effort, but I’ve decided instead to fight for my community. In my dual role as researcher and clinician, choosing my battles comes down to a question of emotions, which reason alone cannot explain, but to which I’m happy to respond.

Martin Fortin, M.D., M.Sc., CMFC, Professor and researcher, Department of Family Medicine, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Université de Sherbrooke, GMF-U de Chicoutimi, CIUSSS du Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean

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