‘Kind of been a whirlwind’ for nursing students suddenly called upon to help screen Manitobans for COVID-19

By | April 10, 2020

When you ask Thomas Koop why he wanted to become a nurse, he’ll tell you he wanted a career where he could assist people and face a new challenge every day.

The 22-year-old student didn’t anticipate that he and his fellow nursing students would be suddenly called upon to help with a vital service during a global pandemic.

“Yeah, it’s kind of been a bit of a whirlwind,” said Koop. “Never a dull moment during the day, that’s for sure.”

He is part of a graduating class that includes 116 fourth-year nursing students from the University of Manitoba’s Rady faculty of health sciences.

He says many of the students, including him, were in the midst of their practicums, working with various community health organizations when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“I, for example, was at Learning Disabilities Association of Manitoba. And then once the pandemic hit, that got cancelled, and in order to satisfy our clinical hours, we got set up with Health Links.”

Koop says the students received a day of training, and have been taking calls at Health Links-Info Santé — the province’s 24/7, phone-based nursing triage system — since mid-March.

The nursing student works eight-hour shifts at the call centre, based at the Misericordia Health Centre in Winnipeg. He says workers get updates before and during shifts on a situation that is rapidly evolving.

“Some days we’re seeing upwards of 3,000 calls during the day. The phone lines are pretty much never empty.”

According to numbers from the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, before the pandemic, operators were taking over 350 calls per day.

The volume jumped to over 2,000 on average per day since March 17, and that pace continues today. A WRHA spokesperson says the work of the students, in combination with technological upgrades, has reduced wait times on the phone line from two hours in mid-March to, on average, less than 15 minutes by early April.

Health Links-Info Santé is part of the provincial health contact centre, which takes calls from Manitobans 24 hours a day, seven days a week. he centre has been getting about 2,000 calls a day since the COVID-19 pandemic hit. (CBC Manitoba)

Koop says the hands-on experience has been eye-opening. In addition to screening people, he’s taken several calls from Manitobans who are feeling a range of emotions and are looking for a comforting voice.

“There definitely is a lot of anxiety and uncertainty now. I mean, a lot of people call this screening line just with general questions, too.”

Donalda Wotton is the director of clinical education at the U of M’s college of nursing. She says students were called upon to help back in 2009 in the midst of the H1N1 pandemic.

“We had our 600 students out immunizing, and that was a good moment,” Wotton says. “I think as students and as academics we always want to think, ‘what can we do to help, and what is the best way to help?'”

Wotton says for the students, being able to help support the health-care system is a proud moment, and also helps build their confidence.

“It’s been a huge win, and I think it’s a great thing that our future nurses can do,” she said. “The more they learn, the more they then repeat it, the more support they get.”

As for Koop, he’s completed his required practicum hours for his program, but he’s going to continue to work at Health Links, with the hopes of one day working on the front line in a hospital.

“It just makes me really proud to be Manitoban, that everyone is kind of working together at this point,” he said. 

“We’re all doing our best and it’s the support that I’ve seen between individuals that has been really encouraging.”

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