It’s said that when the going gets tough the tough get going, and whether it’s a flood, forest fire or COVID-19, Manitobans have a well-earned reputation for their willingness to help during a crisis.
As we prepare to celebrate National Volunteer Week, April 18-24, it’s fitting that we take some time to thank the hundreds of health-care volunteers who — despite the risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic — have stepped up while virtually everyone else has been asked to step back.
Volunteers have long been an essential part of the health-care system, working in a variety of sites, programs and capacities to help us with important tasks that either might not be done without them, or would have to be done by health-care professionals whose skills are better focused on their areas of expertise and training.
From assisting with services in our community health portfolio to lending their voices to a number of advisory councils that help inform policies aimed at making the health-care system more equitable, effective and responsive, the work of volunteers is nothing short of indispensable.
In ordinary times, there are more than 400 volunteers working within the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority (WRHA), and many more in hospitals or other health-care settings within the city and province that fall outside its jurisdiction. Since the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic a little more than a year ago, there has been a need to suspend some programs and activities to comply with pandemic-related health directives. However, there have been approximately 350 volunteers who have assisted this past year to help with COVID-19 volunteer roles in the community.
We consider each and every one of them true health-care heroes.
Health-care volunteers have been an important part of Manitoba’s COVID-19 response from the outset of the pandemic. In fact, as plans got underway for the opening of our first testing sites, the need for volunteers was among the initial items of discussion.
Since last March, volunteers have been on the front line, assisting at our testing sites and other facilities, helping with tasks such as greeting, screening and directing members of the public. They have helped us ensure the public is following proper protocols on arrival, distributed information sheets about COVID testing and how to access results, and, in our drive-through testing sites, have even helped with traffic control.
Volunteers have also been busy behind the scenes, lending support to the Provincial COVID-19 Contact Call Centre. There they have been trained to call members of the public who have had contact with confirmed cases of COVID-19, making sure they are still asymptomatic and following mandated isolation protocols. In cases where those contacts report symptoms of COVID-19, calls are transferred to nurses working in the call centre.
In a very real sense, health-care volunteers are treated as staff. Many once were. I’d estimate that up to 40 per cent of our current volunteer base are retired health-care workers who have recognized the need to step forward to reduce the burden on our health-care system. University students represent another sizable source of volunteers; many of them are working toward careers in health care, and are gaining valuable experience.
No matter their background, all of our volunteers are working hard. Together, they contributed 16,179 volunteer hours in the period spanning March 2020 to February of this year. Ordinarily, they are asked to make a volunteer commitment of between three- and six-months in duration, but some have reached the one-year mark coinciding with the start of the pandemic.
Those working on the front lines face similar COVID-19 exposure risks as many of our staff. They are trained in the proper use of, and provided with personal protective equipment (PPE) required for their role. They haven’t flinched.
In addition to the proper use of PPE, all volunteers are provided information on hand hygiene protocols and have signed declarations confirming they have self-screened for known COVID-19 risks such as out-of-province travel. They also receive training on, and must abide by, the Personal Health Information Act (PHIA) which requires they keep patient/client information private, confidential and secure.
Their motivation for volunteering varies, but in general terms, they all share a desire to contribute to health-care excellence, even in these uncertain times. It’s in their nature to help and we, as a health-care system and as Manitobans, can’t thank them enough for putting their lives on hold and accepting the hard work and potential risks associated with being part of our pandemic response.
For more information about volunteer opportunities with the WRHA, email firstname.lastname@example.org, call 204-787-5078 or visit wrha.mb.ca/volunteer-services. For other volunteer opportunities with non-profit organizations, charities and community groups, visit volunteermanitoba.ca.
Susanna McLeod is Manager, Volunteer Services with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.