Health Care Workers Still Fear Bringing the Pandemic Home

We may have flattened the curve, but nurses, doctors, and staff can’t relax—the worst may be yet to come

Illustration of a doctor watching a house with a parent and child playing in the yard. A blank space separates the doctor from the house. The background is bright orange.

In early March, Annie Doan, an emergency physician at Credit Valley Hospital, in Mississauga, Ontario, started a new habit. After each shift, she pulled off her nonporous purple Nikes and slipped into beat-up leather slides before entering her car. When she reached the driveway of her Toronto home, she changed her footwear once again, this time for the quick walk from garage to house. Once inside, she immediately stripped off her clothes, threw them into the wash, and took a shower. At the time, new COVID-19 cases were growing by the day, and Doan wanted to do everything she could to protect her family. But, even with all this care, she feared her precautions might not be enough.

The Credit Valley emergency team, like most health care teams across the country, had been preparing for an impending surge of infected patients. Morale was mixed. By April, there were rumours that other Toronto-area hospitals had less than thirty days of personal protective equipment available for staff. “People are reasonably scared, worried, anxious,” Doan said in April. Nobody wanted their region to become the next Italy, which, at the time, was a hotspot with more than 150,000 confirmed cases.

Doan, who lives with her husband and children, ages four and two, worried about their health. There was also her mother, who had moved in with the family after the start of the pandemic. Doan decided that, if the outbreak in Toronto became out of control, she would move out, into her mother’s now-empty home, which is near her work. Doan dreaded the thought of being away from her children. There was no way of knowing how long an outbreak would last, how long she’d need to stay away. Still, the emotional toll aside, she considered it the least disruptive way to reduce her family’s risk. “After a hard day at work, all you truly want to do is go home and hug your kids and hear all the nice things they have to say to you and all the nice things that they’ve been doing,” she said on a Zoom video call.

COVID-19 has caused isolation and sacrifice for everyone, but few have been asked to give up as much as health care workers. Doctors, nurses, and facility staff are not only caring for patients day after day but are burdened with the increased risk of bringing the virus into their homes and endangering their loved ones. Now, six months after Canada’s first case and with this new normal likely extending into 2021, many workers are balancing conflicting needs: Should they move freely among their families, who often provide support and comfort during stressful times, or should they continue isolating from them? In Canada, COVID-19’s curve may have flattened, but the virus is still present. For health care workers considering their home lives, the disaster is not over. As many are predicting, the worst may still be to come.

From the early days of the pandemic, front line health care workers have been among the virus’s many victims. Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor who tried to warn the world of COVID-19, was one of the first to die, in February. According to one World Health Organization report from April 8, more than 22,000 confirmed cases from fifty-two countries involved health care workers. In Ontario, the latest data at the time of publication reveals that they make up 6,413 confirmed cases.

Back in March, one of the Ontario doctors who opted to isolate from their families was Brent Andruko, an emergency physician at Mississauga Hospital. Andruko, fifty-five, considered himself in a moderate-risk group due to his asthma, but he wasn’t worried only about himself. As a medical veteran of SARS and H1N1, he’s no stranger to the ways his job can put his loved ones in danger.

In 2009, while working in his hospital’s emergency department, Andruko contracted swine flu. He later spread the disease to his wife and two young sons, who were a toddler and an infant at the time. They all eventually recovered, but it was an eye-opening experience.

In early March, as emergency measures were implemented in Canada, Andruko knew that he could not have a repeat of that event. The risks with COVID-19 were even higher because, that same month, his wife, Kate Greenhouse, developed shingles, resulting in a compromised immune system. With the virus spreading in Canada, Andruko made the decision to leave his family and moved into a rented Airbnb apartment nearby.

He continued going to the hospital and saw his family only for regular walks, during which he was forced to keep his distance. Often, after he would leave, his youngest son would burst into tears. “It’s hard [for the children] because they can’t touch him,” Greenhouse said. “I think that’s actually one of the hardest parts . . . for Brent, too. He doesn’t get any physical connection at all, any hugs. He can’t touch his own children.”

To Andruko, family is everything. He didn’t know how long the separation would last. Predictions for a vaccine have been cited as twelve to eighteen months in the best-case scenarios. But Andruko was willing to continue the living situation indefinitely to keep them safe. “I don’t want to get them sick,” he said on a Zoom video call, two weeks into his Airbnb stay. “I don’t care if I go, but I can’t let my wife go.”

In some ways, doctors like Andruko and Doan are the lucky ones. Physicians are at great risk, but their larger salaries, which can be hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, can make it easier to facilitate distancing through rented spaces. Other hospital workers—nurses, orderlies, patient-service associates—can be in more precarious situations and have an average salary of $40,500. For some, separation can be more complicated than just making the decision to leave.

In recent months, civilian-led initiatives have popped up throughout Canada to offer support for workers who prefer to avoid risk by distancing from their loved ones. Across the country, connects property owners who have empty suites with medical professionals in need of low-cost housing. In Ontario, RV owners are lending their motorhomes to essential workers so they have another place to stay. One Toronto-based charity, StayWell, is helping workers find temporary accommodations for the duration of the pandemic.

There have been other forms of support made available as well. Since the onset of the pandemic, Robin Banister, a Toronto-based therapist, has offered free video chat sessions for front line workers dealing the anxieties of limited personal protective equipment, frequent policy changes, and separation from families.

As summer continues, cities around the world are opening up, sometimes in spite of rising local cases. Canada has had far fewer cases than the US, Italy, and Brazil, but even so, that is no prediction of future trends. As social-distance restrictions continue to relax, Doan says there is no telling whether a significant uptick will occur.

For now, all Doan can do is cherish the moments she gets to spend with her family: she hasn’t had to move out of the family house, but her contingency plan still hasn’t been ruled out. “I’m very relieved, very appreciative that things have played out better than I thought they would,” Doan said in May. “I’m cautiously optimistic that things won’t get much worse than this.” After a pause, she added, “But, I guess, we’ll see.”

Meanwhile, Andruko is now back at home with his family. He stopped renting his Airbnb bachelor pad in June. Being back home means Andruko is able to sit with his kids, watching Netflix, no longer keeping six feet away, no longer constantly masked. He’s thankful for all the time he gets.

Mitchell Consky
Mitchell Consky is a Toronto-based journalist and the author of Home Safe: A Memoir of End-of-Life Care during COVID-19. His work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, BNN Bloomberg, and
Natalie Vineberg
Natalie Vineberg is a designer at the Washington Post and a former designer for The Walrus.