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Christmas in the time of COVID-19

By ROSALYN ROY


Karlee’s parents, John MacDonald and Jennifer Taylor, watched via Facetime as their 4-year-old daughter opened her gifts on Christmas morning. – courtesy of Jenn Taylor

NORTH RIVER – Shortly before reporting to work on Christmas morning, Jennifer Taylor used her cell phone to watch her 4-year-old daughter open some presents. Across the country from his worksite in Alberta, John MacDonald, also watched the unwrapping via Facetime.

MacDonald, who is originally from Port aux Basques, is a rotational worker and Taylor, who hails from Cupids, is a personal care assistant. While Taylor was scheduled to work, MacDonald had chosen to remain in Alberta to protect his family, especially his daughter.

“Her name is Karlee and she has a heart condition,” explained Taylor via telephone interview on Tuesday, Dec. 29.

MacDonald typically works for 21 days in Alberta, then returns home to his family for 14 days.

“He would come home. On Day 5 he would get his testing, and then by Day 7 he would be allowed out and he’d be able to live a normal life for those seven days. But it was still a challenge for us.”

Because of Karlee’s condition, her parents exceeded provincial protocols right from the outset. For example, while he could have isolated with his family, MacDonald always isolated separately and would only join them after receiving medical clearance.

“He was typically gone for four weeks really, and Karlee would only see him for one week,” notes Taylor.

Once the second wave of COVID-19 began to sweep the country and provinces began adjusting their protocols, Taylor and MacDonald decided to start the holiday season a bit early just in case.

“His last rotation – he was flying back December 1st – so we took a few pictures and did a pretend Christmas, we’ll say. We didn’t open up any gifts because we still had it in the back of our heads that he might get home for Christmas.”

After MacDonald returned to work in Alberta, he learned that an outbreak had been declared. Meanwhile, Newfoundland and Labrador re-implemented the mandatory 14-day quarantine period. That meant that once MacDonald returned, he would have to spend the entirety of his visit separated from his family instead of only half of it.

“He wouldn’t see Karlee, and with her being so young and not really understanding, we don’t do window visits,” said Taylor. “Now we don’t know when we’re going to see him.”

Because there’s no point in coming home just to isolate until he returns to work, MacDonald has chosen to remain in Alberta.

“His company has allowed him to work some overtime and work some different shifts until he can build up some time where he can, hopefully, come home for four or five weeks, where he can do his two-week isolation period alone, and then still get some time with Karlee,” said Taylor.

Cognizant that there is an outbreak at the huge camp where he works just north of Fort McMurray, MacDonald is taking every precaution to stay safe.

“You all share a common area – getting your food, laundry rooms. Some dorms have shared showers, so really you have no idea who you’ve been in contact (with) and who might have been in contact with who, and John’s job especially – he’s high risk because he’s a coach bus driver,” explained Taylor.

Taylor is a shift worker for a long-term care home, and is obliged to work every second Christmas. That meant she also couldn’t be home Christmas morning to watch Karlee open her presents.

“My little girl is four going on ninety-four. She’s very smart,” notes Taylor. “In the past, we’ve just delayed Christmas. Like when I worked Christmas, we would just celebrate another day. But she’s of the age now where she’s counting down to Christmas.”

That meant no postponing Christmas this year either. Instead, Taylor left Karlee still asleep under the care of her grandmother and uncle. Once Karlee awoke, Taylor and MacDonald watched a livestream of Karlee’s excitement and joy.

“My mother Facetimed from one phone and my brother Facetimed from another phone, and we watched her open up her main gifts that she was expecting from Santa,” shared Taylor.

Taylor reported to work immediately after, but MacDonald wasn’t scheduled until the afternoon so he stayed on a bit longer. After work, Karlee and Taylor joined their family for Christmas supper before returning home.

“We sat down by the Christmas tree and we videoed John, just myself and Karlee, and then we opened up some gifts because we sent him some gifts in the mail,” notes Taylor. “So our Christmas pictures and Christmas morning pictures were a little different this year.”

Taylor isn’t quite sure if this virtual, pandemic-altered Christmas is harder on Karlee or her parents. Karlee doesn’t understand time yet enough to realize that her father has been gone for an extra week, and her parents haven’t told her that they don’t yet know when he will return. They have told Karlee that MacDonald can’t fly right now because there is a lot of the virus going around and he doesn’t want to get sick.

“She’s very understanding of that. She’ll say, ‘Daddy’s staying to work so I don’t get sick’, but I feel like she does feel the strain of it,” admits Taylor.

Taylor figures MacDonald will be gone for a minimum of 8 weeks, if not longer, depending on how the pandemic continues to unfold.

“It’s not that he has to be (away), he chooses to be, to keep her safe,” said Taylor.

Meanwhile, although she works at a long-term care facility, Taylor doesn’t expect she’ll be able to receive the COVID-19 vaccination to help alleviate the stress somewhat. Right now the vaccine is only being offered to front-line healthcare workers, but Taylor battles severe allergies and the vaccine is currently not compatible with people who need to carry epi-pens.

“It’s probably not a choice for me just yet anyway.”

This is the first time Karlee’s parents have had a virtual Christmas, and Taylor says she hopes it’s the last they have to watch her via video, but she remains practical about the future.

“Things aren’t changing anytime soon, so we just have to do what we gotta do I guess.”

Taylor admits it can be scary at times. Neither one always knows who they are contacting at work, and who those people have been in contact with that may, by extension, unwittingly put them at risk.

“I can only do my part, and John can only do his,” said Taylor. “Realistically, we wear masks and a visitor has to wear a mask. Yes, they say it helps the spread, but it doesn’t prevent it, and it doesn’t absolutely necessarily protect you.”

The family enjoys strong support from their immediate family. Taylor has pulled Karlee from daycare and Taylor’s mother has stepped in as a primary babysitter.

“Our circle is very small. I have three older brothers,” says Taylor. “They help a lot. They help any way they can.”

Taylor says that they’ve received plenty of messages of support on social media from members of their community and far beyond. She knows plenty of other families with rotational workers facing similar difficult choices, and has observed the current backlash against rotational workers.

“They have families they have to provide for, so they need to work too.”

On Christmas Eve, NTV News aired clips from rotational workers for their families back home. Taylor says she and Karlee were holding it together pretty well until MacDonald’s video to them was broadcast.

“He just sent a message that he was going to be away for Christmas, keep his little girl safe, and that he loved her and missed her. She just looked at me and her little eyes just filled up with water, and she said, ‘Mommy, that was the sweetest thing I ever heard’ and she started to cry.”

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