Taming the virus: How our infection-control team helped keep COVID-19 at bay

Adila Zahir, Chief of Service for IPAC
Adila Zahir, Chief of Service for IPAC

Adila Zahir remembers the night of March 4, 2020, like it was yesterday: At 11:15 p.m., the Jewish General Hospital admitted its first COVID-19 patient.

Rushed in by ambulance from a hospital in Mont-Laurier in the Laurentians, the man in his late 70s had tested positive for the coronavirus after returning from a trip to India. Staff at the JGH, Montreal’s first designated COVID-19 adult treatment centre, had been preparing for this moment. The atmosphere was electric.

“We’d been practising simulations, but this was the real thing,” recalls Ms. Zahir, Chief of Service for Infection Prevention and Control (IPAC) at our CIUSSS. “It was huge. Everything was in place.”

If staff knew what to do to contain the virus, they can thank the IPAC team and its detailed guidelines: What kind of protective gear to wear, what route to take, which elevator to use, when to clean the patient’s stretcher, and how to enter and exit the patient’s room without contaminating others.

Today, many of the rules to control the spread of the virus have become entrenched in healthcare practice in our CIUSSS. But they were conceived and explained in those early days by the team at IPAC, who played a crucial role in containing outbreaks, preventing the virus from spreading, and sharing the information with staff.

Jacki Raboy Thaw, Nursing Consultant with IPAC.
Jacki Raboy Thaw, Nursing Consultant with IPAC.

“We hit the ground running,” recalls Jacki Raboy Thaw, a Nursing Consultant with IPAC. “It was a whirlwind. We were going 24/7.”

Working with JGH infectious disease specialists Dr. Yves Longtin and Dr. Leighanne Parkes, the IPAC team had to establish myriad rules to protect patients and employees: Not just how to safely deliver food, laundry or medication to the units, but where to set up hot and cold zones as well as negative-pressure antechambers to allow staff to don and doff personal protective equipment.

In total, the IPAC team created more than 55 protocols, videos and posters, and ensured their implementation in collaboration with numerous other services.

Amidst it all, IPAC members coped with government guidelines “that were changing every 24 hours,” as Ms. Zahir puts it, and they were available to reassure staff members who worried about passing on the virus to their families. “Questions were coming at us fast and furious,” Ms. Raboy Thaw recalls. “We had a huge role to play.”

Fannie Bourgeois, IPAC Team Leader for sites outside the JGH
Fannie Bourgeois, IPAC Team Leader for sites outside the JGH

The IPAC team was responsible for installations across the CIUSSS as well as sites outside the network, such as private seniors’ residences, religious communities and intermediate resources. Fannie Bourgeois was Nursing Consultant in infection prevention and control at Donald Berman Jewish Eldercare Centre when our CIUSSS faced its first COVID-19 case in long-term care. On April 2, 2020, after four more residents tested positive, Ms. Bourgeois remained on the job until close to midnight, setting up a room to isolate the infected residents, identifying entry and exit areas, and briefing staff on how to move in and out of the hot zone safely.

Ms. Bourgeois sees her work as an appealing mix of microbiology and nursing, of “intellectual work and fieldwork.”

“That first day I felt a big adrenaline rush,” says Ms. Bourgeois, who is IPAC Team Leader for sites outside the JGH. “Looking back over the year, it wasn’t easy, but I’m very proud of what we accomplished,” she says, comparing herself to a soldier who had gone through basic training and had the opportunity to go to the front. “It was like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’m happy to have been able to contribute.”

Diane Brault, Assistant to the Nursing Director for our CIUSSS, is responsible for IPAC and says the team deserves recognition for its work during the crisis. “We couldn’t have gotten through the pandemic without the exceptional people on the team. They set aside their lives and their families,” she says. “I’m very proud of what they did. Their devotion was extraordinary.” For Ms. Zahir, the year passed in a blur of non-stop phone calls and work days that stretched at times to 4:00 a.m. “It was crazy. But I felt like I was on a mission,” she says. That first patient was discharged after several weeks in the Intensive Care Unit, and others would follow. For Ms. Zahir, the IPAC team contributed to the CIUSSS’s success in weathering the pandemic. “Cheers to the IPAC team!”