Niagara nurse Kate Hannigan and her two-year-old daughter, Clara, recently underwent testing for COVID-19 after Hannigan was exposed at work, and her daughter exhibited symptoms. DON RICKERS

Local nurse recalls fear of infecting her daughter with COVID-19

Kate Hannigan freely admits she can be an anxious mom at the best of times. But when she had a COVID-19 exposure at work, and her two-year- old daughter shortly thereafter exhibited a standard symptom of the disease, it was a strain to suppress her panic mode.

As a registered nurse with six years experience, Hannigan knew that the coronavirus was most deadly to the aged, and that ostensibly healthy children were at a much-reduced risk. Statistics are important, but they don’t outweigh a mother’s instinct to protect her kids.

Residing in Fonthill, Hannigan works as part of a family health team at the Beamsville Medical Centre. These days, most of the doctors take appointments and offer consultations over the telephone, but still see patients in person for pre-natal checks, physicals, and the like. An illness clinic operates on the lower level of the building, which is where swabbing for COVID-19 is performed.

At the onset of the pandemic, there was only a handful of symptoms that hinted at coronavirus, but the list has grown to the point where essentially any unusual sensation may be a tip-off. As a triage nurse, Hannigan sits in the office reception area, garbed in standard PPE (personal protective equipment), meaning gown, mask, goggles, and gloves. Visors are available as an option. There is no plexiglass barrier separating her from patients who walk through the door.

The screening protocol commences with three questions: Have you traveled outside of Ontario in the last 14 days? Have you come in contact with anyone who is unwell? Do you present any COVID symptoms? Answer “yes” to any of the trio of queries, and you are sent downstairs to the illness clinic to be swabbed for COVID.

Those who have made an appointment based on symptoms of COVID are asked to wait in their car until they receive a telephone call to proceed downstairs.

All patients entering the clinic are required to wear a mask, and are told as much when they call to make an appointment. The office has had numerous donations of homemade masks, which are given out to patients who on occasion enter without one. Surgical-quality masks are reserved for the medical professionals.

It was a typical office day in late April, when a patient entered the main floor health centre, and requested a screening based on unusual COVID symptoms. Hannigan took the patient’s temperature, which involves putting a probe under the person’s tongue, meaning she by necessity was within the two-metre social distancing limit. The patient did not have an elevated temperature, but was nonetheless sent to the wellness clinic to be swabbed. A few days later, the result came back positive. The patient was immediately put in isolation for 14 days.

“Our staff was told that anyone who had been in contact with the person had been exposed to COVID,” said Hannigan. “We were asked to continue working and wearing our standard protective gear, and to self-monitor for symptoms.”

Hannigan continued to work, symptom-free. She contended with some mild seasonal allergies, but nothing abnormal.

About two weeks later, Hannigan’s two-year-old daughter, Clara, developed a fever. (Her older daughter, Charlotte, displayed no symptoms.)

“Clara had not left the house…my husband, whose career is marketing and media, was working from home….and so I was the only one coming and going, doing the shopping and such. I was very worried that I might have infected her,” said Hannigan. She was also concerned for her husband, who is immune-compromised with Type 1 diabetes.

Both Hannigan and Clara were swabbed immediately (front-line healthcare workers have expedited testing). The results came back negative.

“Of course it was a big sigh of relief. But you can’t help but carry that nagging uncertainty as a healthcare provider…that you might be bringing the virus home to your family,” said Hannigan.

Of course it was a big sigh of relief. But you can’t help but carry that nagging uncertainty as a healthcare provider…

Hannigan is hyper-vigilant about hygiene at home. She leaves her work shoes outside, and strips off her nurse garb as soon as she walks through the front door. Clothes immediately are laundered. Her husband, Joel, has to restrain the girls from rushing to their mom for a hug until after she has had a shower. Hannigan is fanatical about frequent hand washing, which is now an ingrained behavior in her children.

At work, medical staff have an established protocol.

“When we walk in the door, we have to wash our hands and take our temperature, which is recorded,” said Hannigan. “We are required to wear a mask all day. If we’re interacting with patients or assisting doctors with examinations, we wear full protective gear. And we wash our hands constantly.”

The medical centre staff also have meetings every morning to discuss COVID cases and new developments, in an effort to keep everyone current.

“I think we’re doing a great job heightening awareness for our patients on the basics like hand hygiene and infection prevention. Our lead physician, Dr. Bernhard Volz, has really set the bar high.”

Hannigan, who also teaches part-time in the nursing program at Niagara College, sticks firmly to social-distancing protocols when not at work. She still connects with friends and family, but it is almost exclusively online via FaceTime.

She worries about the “second wave” of coronavirus infection that medical experts have predicted for the fall, and whether the already-stressed healthcare system will be able to deal with another onslaught of disease.

Hannigan said that recently, patients have been able to send in photos via computer to their doctors, so that a better assessment of a rash or some other ailment can be made without an in-person visit. A confidentiality release is required.

The Beamsville office is situated in the “bench” area of Niagara wine country, and Hannigan said they have had donations from local wineries of alcohol products to replenish their hand sanitizers.

Medical-grade face masks are a hot commodity right now, and Hannigan said that they are rationing them, and doing a weekly count. They have received a couple “pandemic boxes” from the provincial government, loaded with personal protective equipment, left over from the SARS outbreak in 2003. The gear is marked with an expiry date of 2007, but they still rely on it, she said. Options are limited at this stage.