The COVID-19 pandemic took me to places as a manager that I was not prepared for.
Our alcohol and other drugs (AOD) detox facility in Melbourne is an amazing place to work, although some might perceive it to be very, very intense. To manage that environment, I kept a healthy distance from my staff and didn’t become involved in their personal lives.
COVID changed that.
I now had people approaching me saying, ‘I’m so stressed, what shall I do? I’ve only been here for a few months and Victoria is going into a full lockdown.’ Several staff members told me their partners had lost their jobs and they were now the main breadwinner. Others had family members pass away overseas but were unable to go home to attend funerals. Managing a multicultural staff in these times was not in the management handbook.
But at the same time as I was feeling the weight of this responsibility, my mind was also buzzing with innovation and creativity. I loved this aspect of the pandemic. I loved the innovation driven by crisis, service redesign, flying by the seat of our pants, reading, researching and trying to stay one step ahead of COVID.
I loved collaborating with leaders in other programs and across our sector. It was a delight to participate in the wider leadership team who were all working longer and harder, driven by their commitment to care for staff and consumers. Many were the evenings when, after home-schooling, I would sit up and work late into the night. But I loved it and I never tired of the innovation.
We brought in face masks before the government mandated them—and we made them ourselves. Bring in your Husqvarna, bring in your Janome for a sewing session! People brought in fabric, bright-coloured and with fun patterns like seahorses, and we sat around like a group of Country Women’s Association members in a sewing circle.
I ordered surgical face masks and our staff started wearing them before they were mandatory. And we started using rapid antigen tests before they were recommended. It was this part that I am most proud of—that I took action that was wise before it was mandatory.
The first time a positive case was detected in our facility, early in the pandemic, I went blank with fear. I was standing at home about to supervise home-schooling when the call came in. I had this incredible anxiety that if staff and consumers contracted the virus, we would become a super-spreader site and would have to close for a couple of weeks. The idea of shutting our service for that long was unthinkable.
I got to work as fast as I could and, in full PPE, started to close our facility. I cannot describe how complex it is to close a twenty-four-hour facility and send consumers home, some to unstable accommodation. Staff working that day recall it as one of our worst and best days. The worst—the heightened anxiety we felt for our consumers. The best—the way we worked as a team, the support colleagues gave each other, and the outstanding support we received from our organisation and the Department of Health and Human Services.
During COVID, we all did it tough. We rode the waves of staff illness as people contracted COVID outside the workplace or became close contacts and had to isolate. The working hours for all of us were long and the shift vacancies relentless. We had many nights where we could not staff our facility with nurses, so nurses on our afternoon shifts stayed until one or two in the morning to make sure consumers were medicated and safe before going home and leaving our non-nursing care workers alone until the morning nurses arrived.
But I know our service helped protect the state’s rehab communities and the consequences for our clients of the shift we made to online services because of the pandemic have been phenomenal. Clients usually struggle to get to appointments, but when our services went online, attendance rates went through the roof. People were homeless or isolated in lockdowns but they had phones, so instead of catching—or missing—trains and buses to get to an appointment, AOD services could ring them, and the counselling was just as effective. This wonderful innovation continues to keep people in treatment and our ongoing RAT and PCR testing is protecting Victoria’s big rehab communities.
I know some people are still angry about how COVID was managed in Victoria, but I believe things could have been a lot worse. I fully back the hard decisions made by the Chief Health Officer, Professor Brett Sutton, and I believe that in ten years’ time we will look back at what he did and go, ‘He was pretty darn wise, even if it was hard.’ We will most likely be dead by the time the real consequences of the pandemic are known, but I believe that Sutton made the right call. Many people just can’t see it yet.