(Originally published in the April 2021 edition of The Walleye Magazine)
Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic has been all about flexibility and adapting to an often quickly changing landscape. At the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre, Kathryn Shewfelt has been seeing that firsthand. Shewfelt is the hospital’s director of environmental services and, during the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s also serving as one of the emergency preparedness specialists for the health sciences centre’s incident management team, as well as the support services lead for operations. We spoke with her about adapting to changing times and how some protocols have evolved.
The Walleye: Within the hospital’s COVID-19 response, what does your job entail?
Kathryn Shewfelt: I work with Nicole Moffett, who is our manager of emergency preparedness and security, who’s really our resident expert and an amazing resource for us on incident management. What we do in that role [is] we help set up and adjust the incident management structure, and make recommendations about where projects and items fall within the structure. And then as the support services lead within operations, I oversee the implementation of any support services projects. So that’s really the hat that I wear on a day-to-day basis with my departments in housekeeping, laundry, portering, nutrition, food services, security, [and] medical device reprocessing—making sure all of those programs are able to implement their projects. And then I also took on implementing any projects that really didn’t fall into the other groups, so the clinical and support services branches.
TW: How have you had to adapt various support services during COVID?
KS: It’s really varied for each department and really varied depending on where we are in the pandemic. So as you can imagine, for the emergency preparedness and security department, really that focus on emergency management has come into the fore[…]. For our laundry department, for example, in the beginning when there were shortages of personal protective equipment around the world, we were looking at other options and switched some of our supplies over to reusable versus disposable. So our laundry department saw a big increase because all of a sudden we were reprocessing and washing isolation gowns to support our frontline staff. Within medical device reprocessing, in the beginning when the provincial government mandated that we shut down [non-emergency surgeries], we were actually able to redeploy some of our staff to other areas, so our staff really stepped up and volunteered to help in other departments within the hospital. For our housekeeping department, as you can imagine, [there is] an increased focus on infection control practices, so really making sure that those policies and practices are up to date […] and that we’re implementing them appropriately and changing them as needed as information changes within the pandemic.
TW: How has infection control evolved over the course of the pandemic?
KS: We’ve always had really tight infection control practices. [We are] very stringent about what we need to do, so it was really about working really closely with our infection prevention and control department, and we do that regularly to make sure that any changes in policies or recommendations that were coming down through the ministries were implemented. And [we are] really making sure that we have enough staff to address those issues. So for us it was more making sure that our teams were trained on practices and kept up to date on the changes and then making sure that we had enough staff available to provide the services.
TW: Have you had to add staff?
KS: Yes, we have. We have added staff; we’ve increased hours of some of our existing staff and then brought in some temporary staff to help cover our hours as well.
TW: How has the pandemic changed your sense of your responsibilities at work?
KS: I think the biggest change has really just been the focus on COVID and the pandemic and the incident management piece, so really having to be flexible in our roles and really just stepping in where help is needed versus staying within the role that we’ve been assigned within the organization. I think that’s been the biggest shift— really helping the departments that report to us be able to shift as needed, and supporting the incident management structure. That’s been a big chunk of the work.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.