Smiling Under Our Masks: Adapting to Our New Reality

“Do you mind opening your mouth for me?” The STI nurse asks, her eyes smiling above a stiff blue medical mask. But this isn’t an STI exam, and the nurse is my coworker, wanting to take my temperature before I can enter the building.

It’s an incredibly surreal experience to walk into your workplace and be greeted by your colleagues dressed head to toe in personal protective equipment; coworkers you shared an exam room or a small lunch table with the week before. I’m sure it’s surreal for our clients too—regular programming is suspended, access to the building is restricted and those who do enter are guided through specific corridors by friendly staff and arrows taped out on the floor. But, in the interest of keeping both staff and clients safe while COVID-19 is a risk to all of us, adapting is the only option we have to keep our doors open.

Like the rest of the world, when the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 came to Manitoba in early March 2020, Nine Circles had to make radical shifts to our programs and services in a short time frame. Workshops and groups were cancelled immediately; staff who were able to work from home left the office; the majority of appointments were transferred from in-person to by-phone, and everyone had to learn how to use Zoom.

It was important to us from the beginning that we stay open and accessible to our clients, especially those who face the most barriers in our society. People who don’t have the means to stock up on pandemic food and toilet paper still needed to access our food bank. People who use drugs still needed to be able to access harm reduction equipment to reduce their risk of HIV transmission and naloxone to respond to an overdose. And people still needed access to their caregivers, like their social workers, therapists, doctors and nurses, especially at a time when everything was so tumultuous. So, we found a balance by testing things out, listening to public health leaders, and looking to our harm reduction philosophies for guidance.

We’ve been making this “new normal” work for over 2 months now. It hasn’t always been easy–we know some of our clients can be quite isolated, so not being able to offer space for people to come together and connect has been challenging. Limiting routine STI screening so we can prioritize the most urgent cases is the opposite of our usual sexual health messaging. But there has been joy too, and a reminder that the work we do matters. We see what it means to people to have access to our building to use a bathroom and pick up the supplies they need. Clients tell us what it means for them to be able to talk through their fears with someone and get support. And people have been so appreciative when our staff has delivered Food Bank hampers– something that’s been a positive experience for staff too.

“Delivering those food bank boxes has been very rewarding,” says one of our outreach workers. “We visited one couple who expressed their gratitude with genuine honesty and once back at the office, I realized that they went even further by texting me just to thank us one more time.”

“In a time when I feel like there are such limited ways that I can help, getting to help out with Food Bank feels really great,” our Dietician says. “I am grateful for our team and that food bank is being prioritized as a service. Thanks to all who are keeping food bank running!”

It may be a long time before things get less weird, before the check points disappear and we can see our colleagues’ smiling faces without masks again. So many things have changed that it can make your head spin. But what hasn’t changed is just how much everyone who works at Nine Circles cares about our clients and our community.

On that snowy March day, after I passed the temperature screening and entered the office, a client came through behind me. They answered the screening questions and once they were granted entry they headed down the hall to grab supplies.

“Hey, how’s it going?” I heard one of the Health Education Facilitators say, exuding warmth and friendliness. She too was smiling behind her mask. “How can we help you today?”

By Teri Stevens

Curious about how Nine Circles has adapted our programs and services during COVID-19? Visit our website.