The flag at Guelph General Hospital was lowered to half-staff April 9 to commemorate a grim anniversary.
“Today marks the day, one year ago, when the first healthcare worker in Canada passed away from COVID-related issues,” said Rob Cameron, senior charitable giving advisor for the Foundation of Guelph General Hospital. “So, we are marking that sad occasion.”
A year ago, communities across Ontario were in the second week of the first province-wide shutdown and public support for frontline workers was on the rise.
A collection of painted stones and handmade plaques was growing on the front lawn at Guelph General Hospital and people and businesses throughout the city were erecting lawn signs that read, “We Are All In This Together” and “Thank You Frontline Workers”.
“It has got to be a challenge putting yourself out there from day one,” said Joe Migliaccio from Desjardin Insurance in Guelph. “There were no vaccines – only PPE to protect you from the worst-case scenarios and they were unwavering in their efforts.”
A year later and, despite the development of vaccines, mask mandates, lockdowns and a recently imposed, province-wide stay at home order, cases of COVID-19 are increasing in Guelph.
Public frustration is also increasing while demonstrations of unity and gratitude to frontline workers that were common during the early months of the pandemic have been waning.
“There are a lot of people that are fatigued from the pandemic because it has been a long time,” said Migliaccio “I can’t imagine what these people working in the hospital are going through, how this has affected them both mentally and physically, yet they all stood up and have been there when we need them."
Migliaccio wanted to show his gratitude and with encouragement from Desjardin’s Better Things Program, he reached out to Cameron.
“I know Rob because I am part of the Circle of Life that raises money for the hospital, and I am also the vice-chairman for the Children’s Foundation for Guelph Wellington,” he said. “I asked what the possibility would be of coming in and offering free coffee to all the doctors, nurses, and staff to thank them for putting themselves out there.”
Cameron loved the idea.
“We kind of talked about it and hashed this plan,” said Cameron. “I think it means a lot to the employees to have these gestures at this point.”
The first line of defence against the virus at Guelph General Hospital are screeners such as Ashley.
“Everyone that is coming in, patients, visitors, transfers, deliveries, if you have any business in the hospital, you see us first,” she said. “Temperatures are taken. We make sure their hands are washed with sanitizers. We ask them standard questions about COVID symptoms and make sure they pass all the screening before we send them up to their appointments, surgeries or transfers and things like that. If you fail one of the questions, you are turned back.”
Working as a screener was not part of Ashley's career plans before the pandemic.
“I was studying at the University of Guelph,” she said. “I graduated in the pandemic and I was planning to go to vet school after but because of the whole thing I just decided to stay back and this job opened up, which was great. I have been working here since February.”
Her screening colleague Aditya was a technology student planning a career working with computers.
“I am just working part time here and I love it,” he said. “I only work weekends, but I screen about 50 or 60 people in a day. It is great to get free coffee in such trying times.”
Migliaccio and the folks at Desjardin want to keep the focus of their effort on the frontline workers but Cameron couldn’t resist giving Migliaccio some credit by selecting a clever name for the campaign.
“When I first told Rob about it, I sent him an email,” said Migliaccio. “He replied and the subject line said, ‘Free Cup of Joe on Joe’. So, he named it and I said, ‘I love that.’ I just thought it was great.”
The Cup of Joe On Joe campaign began Monday and runs through Friday, with beverages being handed out in alphabetical order to maintain safety protocols.
“We have to keep it spread out so, we go by the first letter in their name,” said Cameron. “We will probably give out hot beverages to maybe 400 people. That is my estimate.”
Ashley and the other screeners wear masks, gloves and other protective equipment to protect them from the virus, but it can be stressful dealing with people who are frustrated with all the safety protocols.
“I drink peppermint tea,” said Ashley. “That’s what keeps me calm before I start my shift. We just have to remind people that the rules are there for their safety and we want this to be over as much as the rest of the public wants it to be over. We just see that the more we do what we are supposed to do the sooner it will end.”
It is a team effort by everyone working at the hospital.
“These guys are all professionals and we have a really great team,” said Cameron. “Regardless of cases, the hospital and all the employees have been on high alert for 12 plus months now. It’s just a very difficult thing on a day in, day out basis to be always on that high alert no matter what.”
Migliaccio knows that many people are struggling as a result of the pandemic and aren’t able to give to others so he feels an obligation to help in any way he can.“We are in a position where we can give back and this has made us feel like giving back more,” he said. “I see a lot of my clients are hurting. Some are working from home and are okay, but others have lost their jobs. I am hoping by doing this people will see that we can still say thank you. I hope that it is refreshing to the employees and they know that they are appreciated.”