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These N.S. health-care workers dodged COVID-19 at work, but got infected anyway

As health-care worker Chantal Bissonnette went to the hospital as a patient with COVID-19, she feared the worst.

She was weak, struggling to breathe and wasn’t eating.

“I took it as a death sentence,” she said. “I was just worried that that was going to be it for me and I wouldn’t get to see my family again.”

Bissonnette, 28, was one of the first employees of the Nova Scotia Health Authority to test positive for COVID-19.

While her job as a cardiac technologist at the Queen Elizabeth II Hospital in Halifax put her at risk, Bissonnette became infected during a week off.

Thirty-one Nova Scotia Health Authority employees have tested positive for COVID-19. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The Cole Harbour, N.S., resident said she was the province’s first case of community spread.

“I felt my chest getting tighter with every breath I took,” Bissonnette said. “I had to sleep sitting up. I felt like I was constantly huffing and puffing just trying to catch my breath.”

Bissonnette is one of 31 health authority employees who have tested positive during the pandemic.

The health authority planned for the worst, fearing COVID 19 infections could shut down services and departments across the province.

These days, there’s a sense of relief and pride.

“I think our numbers are very good, they’ve been stable,” said Angela Keenan, the manager for occupational health, safety and wellness for the central zone.

Angela Keenan says the Nova Scotia Health Authority had to plan for a worst-case scenario of entire departments being shut down if employees got sick. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Of those who tested positive, fewer than 10 actually got it at work. The health authority won’t say the exact number because it’s so low that it could identify the workers who became patients.

It also won’t say if any of those employees ended up in intensive care.

“Many of them were because of community or family exposures, travel related,” Keenan said.

Bissonnette was diagnosed on March 27, along with her parents. The virus hit her the hardest.

She spent a night as a patient in her own hospital and lost 20 pounds in a month.

“I lost my taste buds almost immediately and my sense of smell,” she said, adding that nine weeks later, those senses haven’t yet returned. “I remember just waking up in pools of sweat.”

Donna Gillis was worried she spread the virus at work, but none of her co-workers or patients tested positive. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

As Bissonnette was in the thick of it, Donna Gillis started to feel unwell at her home in Pictou, N.S.

Gillis is a registered nurse at the Aberdeen Hospital in New Glasgow, N.S. She knew her job would put her in a high-risk position, so she and her husband took extra precautions.

He did the grocery shopping and they set up a trailer in their yard in case they needed to be isolated. Their son, who had returned from a vacation, was in quarantine in their basement.

At work, she wore PPE and said she felt supported with constant updates on best practices.

Despite their efforts, Gillis tested positive on April 1.

“It was kind of surreal because I knew the impact that I was going to have on my workplace, so that was upsetting for me,” she said.

‘Like a tight band across my chest’

Gillis became lethargic and also lost her sense of taste and smell.

“It felt like a tight band across my chest,” she said.

Gillis’s husband, who had no symptoms, also had the virus. She said it’s his case that scares her the most.

“If I hadn’t developed symptoms, the two of us would have continued, I mean, still doing our public health measures, but he was the one that was getting groceries,” she said.

“There are people out there who may be positive, and that’s why your public health mandates are so important to do.”

Why Gillis is going public

Gillis said her colleagues and patients at the hospital were tested, but none had COVID-19. She said that goes to show the effectiveness of the hospital’s precautions.

She decided to go public with her story, so people realize there was community spread in Pictou County. She said people need to keep this in mind as the province starts easing restrictions by opening restaurants and salons on Friday.

“I think because we had great numbers in Pictou County, they weren’t believing that it was the pandemic that it was,” Gillis said.

“I wanted to put a face to it.”

Chantal Bissonnette says she was eager to get back to work after overcoming COVID-19. But she wants young adults to realize it can hit anyone hard. (Submitted by Chantal Bissonnette)

Both Gillis and Bissonnette have now returned to work, as have most of the employees who became sick. The health authority said public health determines if a person is free of the virus, then it works with each employee to make sure they can do their full duties.

“Some have required gradual return to work or support in that,” Keenan said. “We’re very proud of the hard work the employees have put in to ensuring they follow the guidelines. Their hard work has helped keep the numbers low.”

Bissonnette was off for a month, and is now helping COVID-19 patients nearly every day.

She said many of them tell her to stay safe, not realizing she was in their shoes not long ago. She said she didn’t hesitate to return to the front lines.

“I love what I do and I love being in the hospital when I’m not a patient, so I was really excited to go back,” she said.


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