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From heroes to targets: At an Ontario hospital, anti-vax protests weigh on staff

Nicole Corry says she didn't become a personal support worker to be called a hero. But she never anticipated that she would be villainized as she puts her health and family's welfare on the line to care for others amid a pandemic.

Nicole Corry says she didn't become a personal support worker to be called a hero. But she never anticipated that she would be villainized as she puts her health and family's welfare on the line to care for others amid a pandemic.

In the small industrial city of Sarnia in southwestern Ontario, Corry and her colleagues at Bluewater Health hospital are straining every nerve to see their community through the COVID-19 crisis, including those members who target them with pandemic grievances.

This duty of care to every patient, regardless of views or vaccination status, has been a lodestar for hospital staff.

But the COVID-19 surge fuelled by the Omicron variant has put this resolve to the test as health workers contend with accumulated burnout, depleted resources and more staff out sick — compounded by the unsettling sense that some of their neighbours have turned against them.

Corry said her workload has doubled. She shuttles from room to room tending to patients' basic needs and providing the connection they miss from loved ones, often at the expense of spending time with her own partner and child.

The vast majority of Sarnia's residents have stood by health workers throughout the pandemic. But Corry said all it takes is a few vocal detractors to dampen flickering morale. 

Corry said she's seen social media posts denigrate the quality of care she and her colleagues provide. She's been hassled on the way to work over the hospital's vaccination mandates, then returned to her car to find a flyer calling the policy "garbage" fixed to her door.

"We went from being heroes last year to people literally standing outside the hospital yelling and screaming at us for something we never did," Corry said. 

"If we have community support, it makes it a lot better to come to work. And we don't need to be thanked.... We just want to be respected and go on about doing our jobs." 

Across Canada, the neighbourhood pots-and-pan symphonies that heralded hospital workers during the first COVID-19 wave have long fallen silent. But as the virus rages on, a new kind of clamour has erupted from a small segment of the population eager to scapegoat health workers for public health restrictions.

"The people who work in our hospitals are not the people who make the policies around vaccine mandates," said Dr. Katharine Smart, president of the Canadian Medical Association. "They're the people who are still showing up and caring for Canadians."

In recent months, health workers across the country have faced escalating levels of intimidation and harassment, including protests, personal threats and violent behaviour by patients in denial about having COVID-19, said Smart.

The Whitehorse pediatrician said these hostilities can be particularly potent in smaller communities where the ties that bind health workers and patients can make the divisions cut that much deeper.

"It's easier to brush off people who are anonymous to you," she said. "To see people you live with in your community treating you that way or being that negative is really hard, and I think it does hit closer to home."

In Sarnia, this dynamic has put health workers on the defensive as tensions over vaccination clash along the front lines of the COVID-19 fight.

At the centre of the fray is Bluewater Health, which with headquarters in Sarnia and a campus in the rural town of Petrolia, serves as the medical hub for Lambton County's roughly 127,000 residents. It's also one of the county's largest employers, alongside the cluster of petrochemical plants known as Chemical Valley.

Many in the community have gone out of their way to support the hospital through donations and public displays of appreciation. But just as Omicron pushed staff to their limits, the cheers were drowned out by a small contingent of protesters spreading anti-vaccine sentiment, said Dr. Michel Haddad, chief of staff at Bluewater Health.

"There's some fractures in the community. Vaccinated/not vaccinated is becoming politicized, and people are taking out their anger on the wrong people," he said.

Lambton's public health unit has reported that 79 per cent of people aged five and up are fully vaccinated, which is one of the lowest rates in Ontario, according to the latest provincial figures.

The Omicron variant hit the Sarnia region early and hard in mid-December, said Haddad, and presaged the surge that would soon slam across the province.

Initially, between 80 and 100 per cent of COVID-19 patients in the ICU were unvaccinated, he said. This cohort continued to take up a disproportionate number of beds as more fully vaccinated people, many of them immunocompromised, were wheeled into the intensive care ward.

Between Christmas Day and Jan. 25, the hospital lost 18 people to the virus, Haddad said.

Health workers don't treat patients differently based on their immunization status, even if they protested outside the hospital prior to admission, Haddad said.

"Many of the people who might be yelling at us end up needing us, and we treat them just like they're our own brothers and sisters," he said. 

Emergency physician Dr. Mark Woodcroft said health workers aren't prone to complaining, but he can see the fatigue on people's faces as many have taken on extra shifts and cancelled vacations.

Woodcroft said he's beenwelcomed to work by protesters wielding signs that read "COVID hoax" or "killer vaccine" andpamphlets that purport to contain the "real facts" about the virus.

"It takes a toll on all of us as health-care workers … to work so hard, trying to save people's lives, and just to see and hear people doubting about the fact that the virus is real," he said. "We know how real it is and how devastating it can be."

Nadine Neve, interim system navigation lead for the Sarnia-Lambton Ontario Health Team, said local vaccination clinics have also run into problems with protesters.

She tries not to let the provocations of a few detract from the outpouring of community support for the immunization effort.

Every time a clinic is launched, Neve said her inbox is flooded with offers from volunteers looking to lend a hand, among them retired physicians who signed up to wipe down chairs between appointments.

But at times, the confrontations can feel personal.

"I remember one day specifically where someone was screaming at me that I was a murderer out in the parking lot," she said. "And I went home that night, and I thought, no, that's not what I am.

"It was upsetting that someone would think that when I did not go into health care to harm anyone."

Neve said she's worked in other hospitals before but nothing compares to the "family" she's found in Sarnia. She hopes that spirit will see the community through the collective challenges of the pandemic, even when disagreements arise.

In the last few weeks, Neve said she's noticed an uptick in people coming in for their first COVID-19 vaccine shot. While she can't speak to anyone's motivations, she noted that followed news that a young person had died of COVID-19.

"I see a lot of the signs that are out there that say, 'My body, my choice,'" she said. "But it's always your choice to change your mind too."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 3, 2022.

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press