Little Current family experiences entire COVID-19 gamut, shaming included

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‘Ostracizing’ is how young mother describes community pushback after health crises

LITTLE CURRENT – The Noland family of Little Current, all three generations, has experienced in recent weeks the whole COVID-19 gamut: positive testing, mandatory quarantine, a two-year-old daughter/granddaughter also diagnosed and ultimately taken to SickKids where she was intubated, away from her family, the unfortunate communication of the illness to an elderly friend, the end of quarantine and then ‘COVID shaming’ in public places by community members.

This is their story.

A Little Current family that has recovered from COVID-19 is urging the community to act with compassion rather than fear following a spate of unsettling events that have caused the family to feel a great disconnect from the place they know and love.

Connie Noland first exhibited symptoms of COVID-19 on December 30, one day following a negative COVID-19 test through her employer. (Ms. Noland is tested once a week through her employment as a personal support worker.) She described feeling body aches and pains, a low-grade fever and chest congestion. As she had just had a negative test the day before, Connie didn’t think she had COVID-19, but naturally called in to work sick for her New Year’s Eve shift. Her boss informed Connie that she would require another COVID-19 test before heading back to work, and she was tested on Monday, January 4, but by that time the writing was on the wall.

Ms. Noland’s son Matt, daughter-in-law Shaelynn and their three children had been staying with them since Christmas Eve, choosing to ‘bubble’ together over the holidays. On January 2, Shaelynn began to feel a little bit ill, “mostly tired,” she told The Expositor. But more worrisome was when the couple’s two-year-old twin daughters began to develop a croup-like cough. The twins have had croup in the past, so Shaelynn thought this could be a reoccurrence.

The next morning Shaelynn said she awoke to the feeling of extreme cold in her feet and ankles. “I had a hot shower, then put a heating pad on to try and make myself warm. I took Tylenol, and felt better for a little while, but six hours later the extreme cold came back.” Shaelynn took her temperature too, but registered no fever.

That night, Shaelynn and Matt became alarmed that their daughter’s (one of the twins) breathing was becoming increasingly laboured and decided to bring her to emergency at the Little Current hospital for suspected croup.

The attending physician saw the toddler and when Shaelynn asked about COVID-19, the physician on duty didn’t think it was likely, but took the mother up on her request that she be tested in her daughter’s stead as she was also feeling ill.

In the early morning hours of January 4, Shaelynn received her COVID-19 test and shortly thereafter, her daughter’s condition began to worsen, despite the cocktail of medications the child had been prescribed and was being administered to her. At just after midnight, the toddler was admitted and Manitoulin Health Centre staff was administering medication every hour, but still she struggled to breathe. The call was eventually made to send the little girl to Health Sciences North (HSN), so mother and daughter were loaded into an ambulance and began the journey to Sudbury.

“Every hour she was receiving more meds, her oxygen levels were dropping—I was obviously starting to get worried,” Shaelynn shared.

On the ride to Sudbury, the attending nurse received a phone call. Shaelynn said she could tell right away that something was wrong—her body language changed, she put on gloves, sanitized her phone and whispered to the paramedic driving the ambulance. “I had an inkling,” Shaelynn said, “I must have tested positive.”

Another phone call came in to the nurse and she was able to share the news with Shaelynn—she was COVID-19 positive. “I broke down crying,” she shared.

With the positive test result an entire new protocol kicked in and the ambulance had to await instructions before being allowed to enter the Sudbury hospital site. Now donned in full personal protective equipment, including N-95 masks and gloves, the family waited for an escort into the hospital. At first Shaelynn was told she wouldn’t be allowed in. “I was just heartbroken,” she said. “‘That’s my kid—she’s two’,” Shaelynn implored. HSN staff eventually relented and, with extreme precautions, allowed the mother to follow her child into the hospital. Each area of the hospital was cleared before they were allowed to come through, Shaelynn explained.

The Nolands were brought to a room filled with doctors, nurses, residents and respiratory therapists which had an adjoining negative-pressure antechamber where a runner would bring supplies, place them in the antechamber, and leave before the nurses retrieved the instruments. They were told that this was HSN’s first child case of COVID-19.

The toddler was placed on oxygen and needed to be brought to the intensive care unit at which point Shaelynn had to say her goodbyes.

“At one point I started to feel kind of ill but I’m trying to hold it together,” she recalled. “I was emotional and starting to cry. The doctors and nurses were trying to comfort me while looking after my daughter and suggested I go to emerg to be looked at.” Thankfully, Shaelynn’s vitals checked out and she was cleared to go home. Husband Matt and the couple’s other two daughters picked her up to take her home, and on that sad drive home they received a phone call—their little girl was being flown to SickKids in Toronto and needed to be intubated.

“We were devastated we couldn’t be with her. Literally everything was beyond our control.”

SickKids called the Nolands every painstaking day with updates on their daughter and within a few days, she was off the ventilator and had been moved into the pediatric ward.

“We were able to video chat once, but as soon as she saw her sister she just wanted to play while she was on the ventilator.” Knowing their child was so sick and all alone was excruciating for the Nolands.

Five days later, on January 10, the toddler was released from hospital and sent home to recover.

Shaelynn said she knows the ordeal must have been traumatic for her little girl as she was quiet for a few days when she first got home, taking a little while to adjust.

By this time COVID-19 had spread from family member to family member and everyone knew they had the virus as the rest of the family’s three generations had been tested the day their daughter/granddaughter was sent to Sudbury.

Shaelynn said she is incredibly grateful to the doctors and nurses at MHC, HSN and SickKids for taking such good care of their child under the most harrowing of circumstances. “We were petrified,” she added. “We couldn’t have asked for better care all the way around.”

Public Health Sudbury and Districts (PHSD) informed the Nolands, who by now numbered nine in their case count, that they were free from self-isolation 10 days from their positive test or from when they first exhibited symptoms. The toddler’s self-isolation period was 20 days because she had been on a ventilator (the 20 days expired over the past weekend).

The Nolands were informed that once their quarantine time was over, they were free to go about their daily lives, of course while maintaining physical distancing, wearing a mask and washing their hands.

Nastassia McNair, program manager, School Health and Behaviour Change with Public Health Sudbury and District (PHSD)’s School Health, Vaccine Preventable Disease and COVID Prevention Division, confirmed with The Expositor that in those cases with non-severe symptoms, such as the Nolands had exhibited, public health recommends an isolation period of 10 days from the onset of symptoms. Those individuals who experience more severe COVID-19 symptoms will have differing isolation periods, depending on advice from PHSD.

Ms. McNair also explained that when there is one person in a household has finished their isolation period but others have not, that person may start to go about their normal daily life, provided that the others in the house continue to self-isolate from that person.

But the reaction from the community, despite going through the unthinkable with one of the youngest members of the family, has been far from welcoming.

The police have been called on the Nolands (who have continued to live under the same roof since Christmas) following citizen complaints not once, but twice.

The first time an officer showed up at the family home with a report that a family member had been seen outside of the home and demanded proof that they were COVID-19-free.

“I explained to them what had been told to us by the health unit and that the health unit does not provide letters, nor do they require a negative test because antibodies can register a false positive,” Shaelynn explained. The police were to confirm what the Nolands explained to them, according to Shaelynn.

A few days later her husband Matt and father-in-law Terry Noland were publicly questioned by the police while attending the Northeast Town landfill, attempting to throw out the accumulation of three weeks’ worth of garbage from their self-isolation.

Sergeant Carlo Berardi, media relations co-ordinator with the Ontario Provincial Police’s North East Region, told The Expositor that current protocol allows for members of the public to contact police or PHSD if they feel someone has contravened public health regulations respecting COVID-19 quarantining. “If someone is found to be in contravention, there will either be enforcement, education, or both,” he shared.

“If someone is under quarantine, there will be a record of it somewhere, be it at the hospital or the health unit,” Sergeant Berardi added, noting that an investigation would commence upon police receiving a public tip. He reminded the public to only call 9-1-1 in case of an emergency, but to use the 1-888-310-1122 number for COVID-related matters.

Last week, Matt Noland was denied access to a financial institution—the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

The latest humiliation was all Connie could take. She too has lived persecution while shopping for groceries: the long stares, whispers and even loud pronouncements of, “those are the ones with COVID!”

The normally quiet and reserved grandmother decided it was time to speak out.

“I was so upset, I don’t want to be judged,” Connie said, calling all the experiences her family has endured “humiliating.”

“We thought that if we remain quiet it will just go away—it hasn’t,” daughter-in-law Shaelynn agreed.

“As long as we’ve done what we were supposed to do to keep the community safe I don’t know why the community feels it’s their business,” an exasperated Shaelynn offered. She worries there is a lack of education on post-COVID procedure. “Police don’t even know what’s right and wrong,” a reference to her own experience with the officers who called on her family, presumably acting on a complaint, when she explained in detail to them the public health unit’s protocols which her family had followed.

“It really makes you feel secluded,” Shaelynn added, sadness in her voice. “We’d been through this traumatic experience and now… We understand people are scared, but we’re still people. We have a family we need to support and care for, but we don’t want to be pulled over every time we leave the house.”

There has been one case of community spread as a result of the family’s illness—a fact that has brought a great deal of distress to the Nolands. An elderly woman, who the family helps to take care of, contracted the virus from one member of the family before they knew of the infection. The senior is still suffering from the effects of COVID-19.

“We’re all so worried about her,” Connie and Shaelynn both said.

“We were devastated,” Connie added, noting that the family wishes their friend a sound recovery.

Shaelynn said the entire family feels ostracized from the community. If anything, she said, coming out of COVID-19 has her hyper-sensitive to protocols. 

As of last Wednesday, the family had hit the 20-day mark—the same day Matt was unable to do his banking, except by automated teller.

“We didn’t want to get it,” Shaelynn said of contracting COVID-19, noting how the family got the virus remains a mystery and that they did everything they were supposed to do under public health guidelines.

Shaelynn urged the community to treat people who have lived through COVID-19 as though they were their own family. “If you’re seeing people in public, just ask us and we’ll tell you; just stand six feet apart and ask, don’t call the police. Be kind and compassionate.”

“You can’t treat people like that,” Connie added. “I’m not a hateful person, but that’s wrong. Being harassed is not right; we did everything right.” 

Connie admitted to viewing the community differently now. “I thought communities were supposed to have your back,” she said sadly.

The family has recovered fairly well from their ordeal, although Connie has not regained her sense of smell or taste.

The toddler is doing much better and will soon be tested for asthma, which could be why she fell so ill, Shaelynn shared. Terry has lupus, which leaves one’s immune system weakened, and brother Willy, who was among the nine positive cases (and lives in the same home) has a heart condition. So far, Connie said they are all doing well and everyone is long past their isolation date requirements. Throughout it all, the grandmother said, their focus was always their granddaughter. “We had a lot of prayers for that little baby,” she added. “She was our main concern.”

On Friday, Dr. Penny Sutcliffe, medical officer of health for PHSD, released a statement that reminded the public that the COVID-19 virus doesn’t discriminate, and “neither should our communities” after learning news of the family’s trials.