Knowledge is power

Dr. Lisa Barrett. Photo: YouTube

Dr. Lisa Barrett never imagined she’d face COVID-19, but her whole career has prepared her to spearhead Nova Scotia’s testing campaign


nfectious diseases grabbed Dr. Lisa Barrett’s attention when she began working in an immunology lab during high school.

Her passion grew stronger while studying science at Newfoundland’s Memorial University.

“That was a long time,” Barrett says. “I grew to love it. I was working with a guy who was studying HIV when I was in my university years, and I never wanted to leave it. It was always a passion to do both research and infectious disease, and HIV has been one of my focuses—HIV and Hepatitis C—for many, many years.”

After completing her postdoctoral and medical degree in Newfoundland, Barrett completed her chief residency at Dalhousie University and a fellowship in adult infectious diseases at the University of Toronto. Additionally, she finished a postdoctoral fellow with the immunoregulation laboratory at the American National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

During her education and stages of her career, the Nova Scotia Health Authority’s infectious disease physician and Dalhousie University researcher never expected that she would be on the frontlines of the province’s COVID-19 pandemic response.

“It wasn’t on the list of things that I was studying that I thought I would be doing, that’s for sure,” Barrett says. “Although, it is one of the things as an infectious disease person that comes up obviously. It’s been an interesting ride, and certainly I don’t work at public health, so it’s been in addition to those folks and all the efforts they have and do that I’ve been involved.

Barrett came up with the unique concept of rapid testing pop-up sites along with colleague and medical microbiologist Dr. Todd Hatchette.

“He does the lab-based testing—we talked a lot about it over the years,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to bring more testing, more access to things to people in the community, make them less medicalized, more social, and a part of what people will do. When we started to see an uptick in the number of cases in November, we finally just said, ‘OK, we can do this; let’s go down to one of the local bars, which was closed at the time, see if we can bring this out to people and have them do it for themselves.’ It’s by the people for the people, and that’s where the concept started and has taken off. Nova Scotians have really grasped it.”

Rapid testing pop-up sites have played an integral part in testing and tracking more COVID-19 positive cases, especially the elusive, asymptomatic ones. Since the first sites came to life in November, Barrett has witnessed how they work and their challenges, especially when it comes to communication with the public and maintaining the same level of information.

Dr. Lisa Barrett

“It’s trying to get the right information out to the right people, at the right time and making sure that we message things out to people in a way that’s connectable and relatable so that people can make smart choices,” Barrett says. “It’s a bit of a passion, and I think it’s one the challenges most other provinces have had in Canada, that people have not always had consistent information and leadership. In Nova Scotia, there’s been lots of really great communication and leadership. It’s been helpful in people understanding things in government and in public health.”

Recently, it’s been tougher. As Halifax battles a third-wave surge of the virus that backlogged testing, the past two weeks have been filled with early morning calls, organizing daily plans with others, connecting with government as well as hospital partners and treat patients hospitalized with the virus.

“Every day is something different; it starts early and ends late,” Barrett says. “These last 14 to 15 days have been incredibly busy and pretty stressful, I would say, not for me, but just because I’ve watched the province struggling here. You go around and make sure everybody is okay with your colleagues because you care for them together, then you go out and start up a new site for a pop-up. Every day is different, and then you go back, and you summarize for people, hear about new positives somewhere, try and help, and be a part of the solution … There’s never a day in the same place or space.”

Barrett says the work is rewarding despite the difficulties.

“Every day is different; then you go back, and you summarize for people, you hear about new positives somewhere, you try and help and be a part of the solution in getting people both testing and looked after,” she says. “There’s never a day in the same place or space. Every day has questions and things that come up.”

Barrett finds support is in her team, which includes the many volunteers that have come to help ensure the rapid pop-up testing sites run efficiently and smoothly daily.

“I am only a teeny tiny part,” she says. “All of my colleagues in infectious diseases are amazing … There are no days off, there’s no downtime, there are no business hours, and people start trucking through hardcore. As volunteers at these pop-up sites, Nova Scotians have made us a leader in Canada in terms of early detection systems. It’s our volunteers and the people engaged in the community, not us, but people who are actually in the community with connections who know people who know what people need and want are doing the hard work in Nova Scotia. They are what makes this work because you can set up a tent, and unless there’s no one in it, it doesn’t count.”

Barrett has had to forego the idea a family-work-life balance. She lives alone and doesn’t have children, and is unable to spare much time for her parents who live here and her sister in Calgary.

“They understand that very well,” she says. “I love what I do, so it’s not really work.”

Dr. Robert Strang. Photo: CNS

Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health and the leader of the province’s COVID-19 response, hails the work of Barrett and her team.

“Rapid testing plays an important role in our fight against COVID-19, and Dr. Lisa Barrett has done a fantastic job leading this area,” Strang says. “I want to thank Dr. Barrett for her continued leadership. I also want to thank the thousands of healthcare workers, volunteers and Nova Scotians who have continued to step up during this time. Our collective actions, like getting tested regularly, are what will help keep each other safe.”

While she continues to work to get Nova Scotia ahead of the virus curve, Barrett worries about the outbreak rocking Halifax. However, she remains hopeful that this will subside as the other two waves did: by everyone doing their part.

“These last few days have not been super reassuring,” Barrett says. “Seeing uncontrolled community spread … I’m not super keen on this. These last few days have been scary because we’re doing everything we think we can, and clearly, we’re not quite getting ahead of the thing. Let’s hope that turns around in the next four or five days.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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