They’re tracking COVID for their co-workers, one phone call at a time

Three nurses from the CIUSSS West-Central Montreal COVID hotline. Left to right, Rebecca Tremblay, Catherine Di Ioia, Sophie Bastarache
Three nurses from the CIUSSS West-Central Montreal COVID hotline. Left to right, Rebecca Tremblay, Catherine Di Ioia, Sophie Bastarache

Many of the callers to the COVID-19 employee hotline are anxious. Some are crying. They have a sore throat, or a stuffy nose, or maybe they’re feverish and have lost their sense of smell.

Do they have the coronavirus? When can they be tested? And what will happen to their family if the results are positive?

Fortunately, the callers can rely on an attentive ear and professional advice at the other end of the line. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, a team of 30 nurses from our CIUSSS has answered more than 14,000 employee calls, booked more than 3,000 coronavirus tests, and offered prompt and personalized follow-up support.

The hotline is part of a range of services offered by CIUSSS West-Central Montreal to support employees and help them cope with the stress of the coronavirus. For the nurses on the COVID line — an initiative of the Occupational Health, Safety and Wellness team of the Human Resources Department — that means helping their co-workers navigate an unparalleled public-health crisis.

“It’s very rewarding,” says Sophie Bastarache, a JGH Emergency Department nurse assigned to the COVID line during the pandemic. “We can’t see the person we’re talking to, but we’re listening very closely. I feel I’m playing a big role.”

The nurses view themselves as part caregiver, part detective and part psychologist. They came from an array of units and departments, mostly at the Jewish General Hospital. Like Ms. Bastarache, nearly all of them are pregnant; they were withdrawn from providing direct care to patients and reassigned to the COVID line to reduce their exposure to the coronavirus.

Instead of working on a floor, they work on a phone, at home. Whether the caller is an orderly, a member of Housekeeping—or, in many cases, a fellow nurse—the COVID team listens and methodically analyzes each case.

“We’re detectives. We have to get all the details, and make sure we don’t miss anything,” says Rebecca Tremblay, an Emergency Department nurse assigned to the COVID line.

Screening tests for COVID are typically booked the same day, and employees can expect a follow-up call in 24 to 48 hours.

If the test comes back COVID-positive, the nurses often become a shoulder to lean on. They offer advice on isolating at home, and try to calm employees’ fears of spreading the virus to members of their household.

“We can’t give physical support, but there’s a lot of emotional support,” Ms. Bastarache says. “We listen to what people need to get off their chest. We’re there for them.”

At times, some simple words of reassurance help.

“I remind them is that we’re all humans and we do our best,” Ms. Bastarache says. “It’s not your fault if your partner becomes positive, just like it’s not your fault you became positive. You do what you can.”

The team gets to share good news, too. Once employees test positive for the coronavirus, they require follow-up screening until they are found to be COVID-free. Ms. Bastarache followed a staffer from the IT Department who went through a succession of tests, each time getting a disappointing positive result. After a month and a half, when he was finally rid of the virus, Ms. Bastarache was eager to deliver the news herself. “I called him and said, ‘Get yourself a bottle of champagne,’” she recalls.

Our CIUSSS’s COVID-19 line, which operates seven days a week, not only shortens the wait times for employees and the stress that goes with it. It also means that those who test negative can return to work more quickly. Despite the high rate of calls—200 to 300 a day—the hotline gives employees faster and more personalized attention than they would get outside the CIUSSS.

Dr. Lawrence Rosenberg, President and CEO of CIUSSS West-Central Montreal, reminds employees that they have a host of resources, including the COVID line, to help them through the turmoil brought on by the coronavirus.

“As always, our CIUSSS is ready to provide the support you need to help you cope with any emotional or physical difficulties that you may be facing,” Dr. Rosenberg says in a recent message to staff.

That support comes, in part, from the dedication of employees like the COVID line nurses. They adjusted their schedules to be available evenings and weekends. And they have provided a valuable picture of the evolving coronavirus situation by documenting the numbers of employees at each CIUSSS site who have tested positive—along with those who have recovered.

Although they work apart, the nurses have bonded during the months since the hotline started, even exchanging occasional questions about their pregnancies. “I’ve never seen the others, but I feel they’re my friends now,” says Ms. Bastarache. If they ever get to meet—with proper social distancing—maybe they’ll even throw some baby showers.

The COVID-19 hotline for employees can be reached at 514-293-1536 or 514-267-7912 (8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., seven days a week).

Listen to the CIUSSS Your Health podcast on the COVID hotline and other support services for staff.

Consult other services available for staff and managers.