Supporting Members during COVID-19Best Practices of the Toronto Police Service Wellness UnitBy Ivy Nanayakkara, Toronto Police Service – Wellness UnitSince 2020, COVID-19 has impacted many aspects of our daily lives. During this time, tremendous pressures have been placed on police services. Members of the Toronto Police Service Wellness Unit recognized the impact that this unprecedented global health crisis would have on our members and, in anticipation, sought to find ways to support our members and the service’s commitment to public safety. The pandemic brought an increased risk of absenteeism and an additional strain on critical resources.These factors, combined with everchanging public health measures from all levels of government, necessitated the rollout of a proactive pandemic support system for the service.Emergency services have the benefit of extensive experience in rapid and concise incident management and response. However, there was little experience in replicating a response to the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. This lack of knowledge placed all emergency services in a precarious position.Due to illness and isolation of staff, they were vulnerable to a disruption in business continuity and potential risks to service delivery.Each individual police service sought to mitigate this risk in a way that best suited the needs and demands of their particular circumstances. The Toronto Police Service used a collaborative and proactive approach of continuous design, implementation and improvement to respond to the localized pressure of the pandemic.The Toronto Police Service Wellness Unit, in partnership with the Emergency Management & Public Order Unit, set up a dedicated sub-unit called “Pandemic Support,” which was responsible for running a peer-based 24/7 hotline and a full occupational nursing case and contact tracing program. Through the reallocation of personnel and the development of a specialized team to manage COVID-19 operational issues, the newly formed Pandemic Support sub-unit was able to focus on a single specific task, positively contributing to the health and safety of our members.The Pandemic Support team is responsible for fielding calls from members and supervisors. They support members during COVID-19 exposure, isolation, illness, testing, return to work and vaccinations. They provide guidance for navigating public health measures and infection prevention and control. The team’s primary responsibility is to be a direct line of communication for Toronto Police Service members, providing support and guidance during the crisis.From March 2020 to March 2022, the team fielded more than 90,000 queries from the approximately 8,000 members of the Toronto Police Service seeking support, guidance, and information related to the COVID- 19 pandemic. The response from members has been very positive, and this team regularly receives sentiments of gratitude for their attention and dedicated support during a very stressful and precarious time. Service members have recognized the Pandemic Support team as an extension of the Chief and Command’s investment in support for the health, safety, and wellbeing of service members.As one member expressed, “Thank you for being such an amazing point of contact for me when my family and I were off with COVID over Christmas. Your quick wit, humour and willingness to go above and beyond to get me back to my division during such a busy time have been greatly appreciated. Thank you so much for being such an awesome human being and for helping me out.” Another member reported, “Pandemic Support has been a key information source for me and my team during all the changing public health guidelines. The staff are always helpful and kind, which means so much when we are in a confusing and difficult environment.”Interactions with the community are the very nature of effective policing. Circumventing these interactions with the communities we serve is not possible, despite lockdowns, stay-athome orders and other public health recommendations and guidelines. To this end, the positivity and exposure rates of Toronto Police Service members have mirrored the trends of the community. The inherent risk and impact of absenteeism have driven the team’s vigilance in supporting members and seeking to triage and proactively case manage illness and exposure.The service developed key partnerships with the Toronto Paramedic Services and the Toronto Fire Services to establish a dedicated testing centre for first responders. The goal of these partnerships was to ensure that these critical public safety resources were readily available to the citizens of Toronto in the event of an emergency. Additionally, through increased and swift testing of first responders, there was a decreased risk of COVID-19 transmission within the Service and, by extension, through interactions with the urban and heavily populated community.The testing centre administered thousands of tests for first responders in the City of Toronto and was a critical piece of the Pandemic Support infrastructure for members. This enabled quick and more accurate contact tracing and member isolations. Through this dedicated testing facility, we were able to better understand how the virus was spreading throughout the community and the service. Armed with this knowledge, the Pandemic Support team was able to pivot a number of times and respond accordingly to the constantly changing landscape of public health measures and requirements. As one Unit Commander conveyed, “I appreciate you all so much for your help during our outbreak. Thanks so much for all your assistance; it is much appreciated.”Despite the large number of members who were required to self-isolate due to exposure or positive COVID-19 tests, a nearly equal number of members were cleared to return to work without any restrictions by the Pandemic Support team. This translates into an avoidance of 42.9% of lost time due to immediate and proactive case and contact management. This proved to be a highly effective approach when compared to sole reliance on the available resources of local public health agencies, who were already resource-stretched by supporting the public. Importantly, this is not to say that any guidelines were ignored. Rather, it is to acknowledge that, at times, members did not fit the isolation criteria established by the local public health department.The Pandemic Support team followed up with each member who failed the daily COVID-19 self-screening tool to determine the nature of their exposure, isolation, symptomology, and recovery timelines.  This practice of direct contact with members offered an additional layer of supportive care, health education, and resource sharing, as well as an earlier resolution to promote a safe return to work. As one member of the pandemic team explained, “It is a beneficial and effective program as our mix of healthcare professionals and peer members provides empathetic guidance, which caters to the specific needs of each and every one of our members. Whether it is a simple question about needing to isolate, or offering support to a member who may become critically ill, our team is prepared and willing to help each member every step of the way.”This program has demonstrated significant value in supporting members, returning members to work in a safe way and as early as possible, reducing both the transmission of COVID-19 within the workplace and, by extension, to the communities we serve. A combination of a dedicated pandemic support team, including the onboarding of specialized multidisciplinary professionals such as occupational health and safety specialists, health-care workers and allied staff, and the commitment of the Service’s leadership to support and invest in member wellbeing, has enabled the Pandemic Support Unit to successfully attenuate absenteeism rates by approximately 43%. As a Pandemic Support team member noted, “Being trained in a short amount of time and being able to give quick, sound advice and direction to members in the ever changing times throughout the pandemic was and is very challenging. Having the nurses, doctors and all the fellow team members working together, day in and day out, has proved to be not only educational but rewarding. I have spoken with hundreds of members over the last year-and-a-half of being with the unit, and [I have] met some amazing people that I have had the pleasure of working with from day to day. The time I have [spent], and continue to spend as part of the Wellness Team, will be times I never forget while being part of the Service.”The approach taken by the Toronto Police Service unequivocally continues to reduce the financial and human resource burden that would have otherwise caused a reduction in the number of members available to work, increasing the risk to public safety.*Special mention to PC Joe Mate and other members of the Pandemic Support Team for their contributions to this article. Ivy Nanayakkara is the Manager/ Unit Commander of the Toronto Police Service’s Wellness Unit. She can be reached at ivy.nanayakkara@torontopolice.on.ca
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