Opinion | 6 May 2020

COVID-19 contingency planning: everything actually worked!

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Photo of Ricky Buchanen. She is lying on a bed, looking up at a computer screen which is mounted above her for use from a lying down position in bed. There are bits and pieces around, including a checklist for carers, and some other assistive tech.

Someone in my home got the dreaded phone call last week – he’d been exposed to COVID-19 and needed to self-isolate. And to my extreme shock, all our contingency plans actually worked as intended!

This story actually starts late last year.

I live in metropolitan Melbourne. So bushfires aren’t a direct threat here, but there were a lot of them in my state at the time and I realised that I didn’t actually have a disaster plan. And that I probably should. Living in the inner suburbs of a large capital city means that while bushfires are not a direct threat to me, the smoke can still be a huge problem, and just the fact that the bushfires exist was scary.

Planning for disasters

It was easy to think about disasters when the air was full of bushfire smoke, so I did my best to figure out what things might affect me, and what I could do if those things occurred.

One of the excellent resources I found was from Collaborating 4 Inclusion, especially their “Person Centered Emergency Preparedness” page. They have also now added a COVID-19 specific planning resource, but of course that wasn’t available before Christmas when I started thinking about disasters in general.

It was really helpful to have a template to follow, but it was a LOT of work to think about all the things that might happen. Eventually I figured out that the things that could be most likely to affect me were:

  • Power outages (longer than a few hours)
  • Local disaster happening to us (eg house fire)
  • Smoky air (from distant bushfires)
  • Epidemic/pandemic affecting my area

One of the many things that occurred to me and got written into my plan was that it would probably not be safe for me to go to an emergency shelter – and that if I needed to evacuate, going to a hotel and holing up there with a support worker would be safer. But it would still really suck because of all of my assistive technology and supplies and everything are set up permanently here in my house.

I figured that I could probably use NDIS short-term accommodation funding to spend a few weeks in a hotel if it became unsafe to be at home for whatever reason. I planned to ask for funding specifically for that when my next plan review came up, but I hadn’t done it yet.

So that’s your background … now on to the COVID-19 part of the story.

On Monday last week, I got filmed for the SBS TV show Insight (Shameless plug here – it’s due to air on Tuesday May 12. Tune in if you can or catch up online later). They sent a cameraman and a sound person here to film me. They were super careful about social distancing and I was very happy with how it all went.

So this meant that by Monday evening I was beyond tired – I was pretty much non-functional. That was fine – I had expected it and I had pretty much nothing else planned all week. It would have been fine …

Putting my COVID-19 plan into action

… except then right then, after dinner my flatmate got a phone call from the Department of Health and Human Services telling us that he’d been potentially exposed to COVID-19 on the 22nd of April! This was just rotten luck – he’d been only going out for essential shopping and went to a single medical appointment. He just happened to get exposed at the medical appointment.

It was difficult to figure out what to do right away. No one would be available on the phone because it was late in the evening when we found out.

The first thing I did was tell my support workers on our WhatsApp group.

Then I emailed both my support worker agency, and my plan manager agency. Luckily, the plan manager was scanning their email and phoned me back pretty fast.

The plan managers were super helpful. They understood that I am high risk, and needed to stay safely away from my flatmate just in case he gets sick. It’s more than likely he’s fine and nobody will get sick, but you don’t know what’s going to happen until afterwards. If we wait and he does get sick it will be too late to protect me.

So I suggested to them that instead of putting me up in a hotel to keep me safe, we let me stay here at home where I have all my assistive technology and all my supplies and routines, and instead we use the NDIS funding that would have sent me off to a hotel to send my housemate off to a hotel for his quarantine instead.

I thought that this would be a huge fight because it’s a pretty unusual suggestion. But the plan managers immediately understood this was a really sensible use of funding. Luckily, in my current plan I have a little more than I need in core, so we’ll take it from there.

By this time it was really late and everybody agreed that my flatmate staying in his room tonight and going straight to a hotel in the morning is probably not increasing my risk any more than him staying here, so we all went to bed.

So in the morning he phoned around to see if there’s a list of suggested hotels for quarantine (there’s not) and we found a relatively cheap place and he’s off there for another week, or longer if he gets sick.

Also that morning my support worker agency called back – even though I wasn’t technically exposed to COVID-19 (I’m exposed to an exposed person, technically) they would send down aprons and surgical masks for my support workers, and offered to send gloves too but I have plenty of those. That parcel arrived two days later.

Between phone calls to the plan manager and the support work agency and my doctor and a few other places, I feel like I spent 150% of the day on the phone and was even more exhausted than I had been when this whole mess started.

I tried wearing one of the disposable masks, but it wouldn’t stay put. I am wearing my home-made cloth mask while the support workers are here.

So as of today, fingers crossed, nobody has symptoms and nobody is sick and hopefully everything will stay that way! My flatmate is coming home tomorrow, so I think we are out of the woods now.

One thing I definitely noticed: In a pandemic, or at least this pandemic, all the precautions we take feel like they are too much and kind of unnecessary … Right up to the point where you suddenly realise how thankful you are that you’d implemented them, because the point where you find out that you really DO need them is also the point where you can’t go back and retrospectively implement them. I was feeling kind of silly about all the things I was doing to be safe until we got this call, and now I’m feeling like it was the bare minimum and I wish I’d been a bit more careful!

So here’s my summary of what helps:

  • It’s not too late to make a list of what you need to do in an emergency. Have all the relevant phone numbers and emails in one place. You don’t want to be searching for things when you are stressed.
  • Check out the templates and make yourself a little plan. It’s not too late – if you’re like me COVID-19 is not your only possible emergency.
  • Talk to someone else about it – so you are not trying to do it all alone. And send it to that trusted person so someone else has a copy and knows all about it. And share what you are comfortable with your providers.

And stay safe!


Update: Watch Ricky on Insight in this article here, or catch the whole episode on SBS On Demand.

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