June 9, 2016
Story by Erika Sherk; Photo by AHS Public Health
FORT MCMURRAY - It’s hard enough to look at an entire shipment of ruined vaccines. It’s even worse when you have to unwrap each one individually, catalogue it and then throw it out.
In the aftermath of the Fort McMurray wildfire, this was the lot of the Alberta Health Services (AHS) Public Health team – discarding vaccines that sat in unmonitored fridges for weeks.
“It was a lot of work,” says Kelly Reid, RN, Public Health. The Public Health Centre had the bad luck of receiving a new shipment of vaccines just before everyone evacuated. “We had seven full biohazard boxes of vaccines to dispose,” says Reid. “It took two days. Our fingers were quite tender for a few days afterwards!”
Public Health staff in Fort McMurray and the Wood Buffalo area are part of a large program that covers much of northern Alberta . The team has been supporting the wildfire response since the start. Now seven members – six of whom are local - are back in the community full-time.
The group has been on-site since May 30. Beyond discarding medicines, they have been hard at work setting up their temporary ATCO trailer office at the Syncrude Sports & Wellness Centre.
“It’s been busy but we’ve been getting a lot of good work done,” says Jordanna Lambert, Director, Population and Public Health, North Zone.
They’re trying to track down new moms and babies, making sure TB patients are getting their medication, contacting patients with scheduled appointments and of course, ordering new vaccines.
Currently, available public health services include communicable disease follow-up, wound management, breastfeeding support, tuberculosis follow-up, public health promotion, urgent immunizations and support for new parents through the Healthy Beginnings Postpartum program.
“It’s been going well, it’s been manageable,” says Lambert. “There are a lot of questions about when we’ll be able to resume clinics and the answer is: as soon as possible.”
The Public Health building hasn’t been turned over to them yet, she says, as there is still remediation work being done for smoke damage. “It will be a phased approach,” says Lambert. “We won’t have all services open on Day One, we’ll be prioritizing based on the community’s needs.”
Of the seven staff members, all but one are local Fort McMurray residents. They’ve been through a lot since May 2. Reid, for example, still has a house but her garage, deck and back yard were all demolished to make a fire break.
Surviving a wildfire disaster has impacted them as a group, says Reid. “We’ve all gone through the traumatic stress of being gone so long and not knowing if our homes were safe. We’re all sharing our stories, funny and sad, and it’s definitely made us closer.”
“The team, from my perspective, is doing extremely well,” says Lambert. “They’re dealing with their own personal issues but they’ve done a phenomenal job.”
The work is only just beginning. Still, the public health team is keeping flexible and keeping their spirits up.
“Day by day, new things pop up and we go with it. We’re doing the best we can and I think we’re doing a good job,” says Reid.