The faces of public health: Meet Joanne Hegazi, manager of healthy schools

This story is the third in a series that looks at how public health care officials in Windsor are coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. CBC News spoke with the people who work at the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit and discussed the moments that made them proud to be on the front lines, the sacrifices they made to help contain the spread of a deadly virus and the frustrations they felt. Read the first one here and the second one here.  

As the start of the school year approached, Joanne Hegazi was busy figuring out how to keep the virus from spreading among thousands of Windsor-Essex students. 

On March 13, Ontario’s Premier Doug Ford sent students home for an extended March break and it was one that lasted all the way until September. 

When students returned to class there were major changes, ones that were handled by Joanne Hegazi. 

Hegazi is the manager of the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit’s healthy schools department. 

When she wasn’t helping track and trace possible COVID-19 exposures she was in charge of creating and implementing return to school plans.

That meant making sure thousands of parents, students and staff were confident enough to return to school during a pandemic — and that when a case popped up in a school, it didn’t turn into an outbreak. 

Through it all, she watched her own family deal with the safety measures needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

She says she experienced cancelled weddings and there were missed graduations. She also had to keep her distance from her own older parents and kept check-ins with the family to weekly Zoom calls where the dreaded C-word —COVID — was banned.

On work

We’ve had three cases in schools, but we’ve contained them. We haven’t jeopardized the school community because of being able to support our schools and our schools acting according to the guidance and isolating whoever needs to be isolated and preventing an outbreak in schools. So that’s been a really good thing. 

You know, often in public health… we work behind the scenes. We’re not seeing a lot of vaccine preventable diseases out there. And nobody says, ‘oh, wow, public health is doing a good job.’ Everybody’s getting their immunization. They don’t think of that. We’re promoting lifestyle changes in school and eating of fruits and vegetables and that leads to better learning. And nobody saying, ‘oh, wow, my child’s doing well. It must be because those public health healthy lifestyle changes that we’re promoting.’

But we are seeing the difference of what we do now. You know, in real time, public health measures work, wearing a mask, washing your hands, not touching your face, doing respiratory etiquette — it works.

On the first COVID-19 case in a school 

I actually went out to the school, we talked to the parents. It was very friendly. They were understanding that they were going to now do online learning. 

Thirteen-year-old Jamie Smith, left, and sister Jenna, 9, posed for a picture of their first day back to school at Stella Maris Catholic Elementary School in Amherstburg. Days later, Jamie tested positive for COVID-19 prompting her, her family, and classmates to quarantine for 14 days. She was the first positive school case. (Submitted by Andrea Smith)

The principal was wonderful. The nurse was answering the questions of of the parents. It was a friendly environment, [I wondered] what would that be like. You know, would we get the pushback from the parents? But the parents were understanding. They knew that this had to happen.

They knew that this was for the good of their school community … Being there and then thinking to myself now will we get a bunch of positives tomorrow and it didn’t happen and that felt really good. 

It’s a new process. And we debriefed afterwards. We talked about it. We put processes on paper. The next case that comes up is totally different and it’s a different experience. And again, that’s what we’ve learned from this pandemic, is that we are flexible, we know what needs to happen and we tailor our response. 

On her frustrations

At least in our school community, I know that that they’re doing what they need to do … and they do care about the community. 

The people that weren’t following it, you know, it’s always the ‘not me. It’s not going to happen to me.’ And unfortunately, from some of those events, it did happen to them and they didn’t realize the extent of how that could lead to other people being infected. And so, again, it’s not to place blame on anybody. We all break the rules, I guess sometimes, but I think it’s happening less and less because there are consequences and COVID is here. 

A car meetup in Windsor in September drew large crowds of people not wearing masks or social distancing. (Ron Shepley/Facebook)

On what’s changed since the start of the pandemic

I always feel like I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. I come into work not knowing what tomorrow will bring and that has been since March … I commend everybody that is doing and following the infection prevention measures. They are working now and they have been working, so as long as we don’t let our guard down. I worry about people feeling like, you know, life is back to normal. 

This is the new normal. This is what we need to do right now to keep this, this pandemic at bay. We are still in a pandemic. We need to, you know, keep that heightened awareness above us. I have not been able to let down my guard. It has been pretty much the same feeling.

I am confident in these infection prevention measures. I’m confident in the team that we have at the health unit. I think that we have been responding very well. I think that, again, our numbers are showing that we’re able to try and isolate the cases and respond appropriately. 

On family 

I have my family and we we also have a family Zoom But then we made the rule that we don’t talk about COVID and we assigned everybody every week something else to talk about. Everybody had to do some kind of a presentation on on something every week and not only talk about COVID. 

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