It took many members of TeamUHN from across the organization to keep the Toronto Western COVID-19 Assessment Centre running smoothly for the first two years of the pandemic. (Photo: TW FHT)
Although the pandemic continues, there are small signs COVID-19 is starting to fade into the background of everyday life. One such sign: the Toronto Western (TW) COVID-19 Assessment Centre (CAC) closed on May 31.
The decision to close the site was made by Ontario Health (OH) in consultation with UHN, given the changes to testing criteria, resulting in lower volumes. COVID-19 testing has been consolidated and is still available at other CACs or community clinics.
Since it first opened in March 2020, the TW CAC has administered more than 230,000 nasal pharyngeal (NP) COVID-19 tests to the members of the public, TeamUHN and their household members, providing an invaluable service during the most profound medical crisis in recent history.
“This is definitely a moment,” says Teri Arany, Executive Director, Toronto Western Family Health Team (TW FHT) who assumed management of the TW CAC. “The fact that the CAC is closing is a success – this part of the COVID pandemic is over.
“There are memories of our team and what we accomplished together which I will cherish forever.”
The testing site came together with lightning speed a few days after the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Testing operations were first managed by the University Health Network (UHN) Emergency Department team who was forced to hit the ground running.
Given the ongoing impact of the virus, management of testing was taken over by the TW FHT, who set up shop in the recently donated Scotiabank building at the corner of Dundas West and Bathurst streets, and stayed nimble to accommodate the demands that followed over many months of operation.
“In the first days after opening, we were swabbing roughly 20 people,” Teri recalls. “In March 2021, we reached a high of 757 swabs in one day – the team has had to change and adapt with each shift to support each pandemic wave.”
For the first six months, the centre was mostly supported by TW FHT staff, with medical leadership provided by the Department Chief for Family and Community Health at UHN, Dr. Camille Lemieux; a Herculean effort when the team was involved with so many other pandemic needs, such as vaccinating in long-term care homes, organizing COVID vaccine clinics as well as managing regular TW FHT operations.
However, new hires and staff from across UHN – including those who were redeployed, volunteered, and some who even came out of retirement new hires – were also part of the staffing effort, and have been instrumental in the smooth running of the centre for over two years.
The TW CAC closure is marking a significant moment in their careers. Some have mixed feelings about the closure given the important service provided by the site:
“I am truly sad about the site closing,” says Peter Tran who now works at the TW FHT reception. “There is a little bit of conflicting feelings where I would still like the site to remain open as the results were truly among the fastest in the city, while sharing experiences with my colleagues.
“However it is a symbol that the pandemic is coming to an end. The work we have done to ensure public safety is vital to the steps of reopening and even the current state of today, and with such a great and supportive team we were able to accomplish many feats.”
While for others, the closure brings back many memories of challenges overcome, progress made and moments shared with their team:
“I worked at the CAC as a nurse and later a coordinator from April to September 2020, during a time of particularly heightened uncertainty, apprehension, and fear for both frontline workers and the general public,” recalls Amy Choy, a registered nurse with the TW FHT.
“I was there when we first shifted away from the Emergency Department triage/assessment model. I was there when the lines stretched all the way to Nassau and we were passing out water to patients who waited for hours in the sweltering heat in hopes of getting a test. I was there when we shifted to an online booking model and no longer accepted walk-ins. I was even there on many weekends outside of my full-time hours to support the team when they were short-staffed or encountered technical issues.
“I felt mixed emotions hearing about the CAC site closure,” Amy continues. “I strongly believe our contributions were instrumental at a time of so many unknowns.
“Above all else, I am proud of how closely the entire CAC team worked together to provide the best care possible to the patients who walked through the door. Odd as it sounds, it was the best thing that could have happened to our team and I will always be grateful.”