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When Dr. Lisa Barrett shared a colleague’s social media call-out wondering if Nova Scotians would be interested in volunteering with the province’s vaccine roll-out, she expected it would garner interest.

What she didn’t expect was the rapid response and the numbers of people who reached out indicating they wanted to participate in what is currently just a kernel of an idea.

“I think there’s a huge sense of community out there that people think we can do this, so I wasn’t surprised at the fact that people were willing,” Barrett said in an interview.

“But the rapidity and the volume of people and their innovative ideas around how we might do this? I thought that was really neat and it really speaks to what we’ve been seeing throughout the pandemic.”

Dr. Lisa Barrett. Photo: Canadian HIV Trials Network (CTN)

Barrett is known by many Nova Scotians for spearheading the successful free, COVID-19 rapid testing pop-up sites that brought thousands out for testing in locations ranging from the Dalhousie University campus to libraries and community centres.

The Dalhousie University infectious disease specialist, physician and researcher sits on the province’s vaccine expert panel, which looks at medical issues like adverse events and immunogenicity.

Although intimately involved with testing strategies, she said it’s important to note she’s not involved with any working groups determining how to roll out the vaccine and who gets it when.

But the success of the rapid pop-up testing model and the fact they successfully made use of non-regulated providers (university students and others) to deliver the tests got her thinking about ways volunteers might be able to help with the rollout of the largest vaccination program in the province’s history.

She suggests volunteers might be able to help with Phase 3 of the rollout, expected to begin this summer. That will include all Nova Scotians who weren’t part of the Phase 1 and Phase 2 priority groups. She’s already thinking about how an alternate vaccine delivery model could help expedite things.

‘We may end up with challenges’

“You look at the amount of people we need to vaccinate in short periods of time, and you look at the fact that if we only use health human resources and regulated providers, that we may end up with some challenges in terms of the fact that we don’t have an infinite number of those people,” Barrett said.

More than 300 volunteers have consistently shown up over the last two months to help with the pop-up testing sites. Barrett said while people have frequently expressed to her that volunteers aren’t a durable, organizable, sustainable resource, she’s had no difficulty finding people with all of those qualities over the last two months.

“And that’s with no effort at recruitment at all. This is just word of mouth,” Barrett said.

“I think in a pandemic, semi-emergency situation we need to get away for short periods of time from the idea that volunteerism isn’t a durable resource, because it really is. And we’ve under-utilized it.”

Barrett said the first time they decided to run a rapid testing site in a closed downtown Halifax bar in November, they got permission to do it on a Friday evening and did the testing the next night.

What might a Phase 3, general population, volunteer-assisted rollout look like? While she has no insight into what the province is planning, she suggests that perhaps in a volunteer-assisted scenario each region of the province would have a V-day (vaccination day) where 1,000 people would be brought in over four sites to immunize an entire region.

“I don’t want to appear like I have any ability to move anything,” she said. “This is just an idea, but hopefully we’re cross-pollinating parts of our COVID strategy to each other and in the part where you get out the general population, why not?”

Barrett said nurses, nurse practitioners and pharmacists aren’t the only ones who might be able to help with vaccinations.

Dentists, vets, physiotherapists

Veterinarians, vet technicians, and dentists do many injections, and physiotherapists and physiotherapy students are intimately acquainted with anatomy. She suggested they could likely be trained to help with injections, while other volunteers without that expertise could help with registration and related tasks.

“It’s not just about not using up your very limited human health resources. It’s about actually engaging community and having people own their own response,” Barrett said.

“It doesn’t take away the need to have cold storage, it doesn’t take away the need to know how to roll the vial of vaccine with the Pfizer one for the jiggle factor.”

But what it would do, she believes, is remove reliance on a limited and key human health resource and allow the broader community to actively participate in the response.

“Just thinking about that might be really important right now, and certainly there’s a lot of people out there who use words like proud. That’s in a lot of the tweets and DMs I’ve gotten,” Barrett said.

“They say ‘I’d be proud to help out. I’d be excited to help out. Let’s get this done. We’re all in this together. I’d love to give up some of my paid time to do this.’”

‘Nova Scotians are here to help you’

Barrett stressed it’s not about trying to find people to do free work. She described it as a short- or medium-term solution to a longer-term issue. She added that for many people, volunteering also offers a sense of giving back and makes them feel like they’re helping in a concrete way in the fight against the virus.

Earlier this week, an opinion piece that ran in the Globe and Mail gave Atlantic Canada kudos for its COVID-19 response and vaccine initiative. It noted that “paradoxically, the Atlantic provinces, which arguably need it least, have done the best job of vaccination, continuing their no-nonsense pandemic response.” It went on to state the rest of Canada “has a lot to learn” from the region’s COVID response.

Barrett believes Nova Scotia’s success thus far boils down to having people willing to think strategically, people in public health and the premier’s office being willing to listen, and Nova Scotians themselves taking appropriate action.

“Ontario and Quebec, I mean, you put all the curfews in you want, you can ‘lockdown’ for a month and a bit, and people just aren’t interested in doing what they’re told or asked, and if that were the case here, we’d be in the same boat, testing or not,” she said.

“Maybe I’m just a little Pollyanna about things, but I have no tolerance or time for the idea that ‘We can’t’ on anything. We can do whatever we want and we’ve chosen to do good things, so I’m hoping that we’re going to continue to do that.”

Barrett said it’s important to note her colleague Dr. Shelly McNeil’s Facebook post seeking to gauge how many people might be willing to volunteer to help with the largest and most complex vaccination rollout in Nova Scotia’s history is a tip of the hat to the province and to Nova Scotia Health and their handling of the vaccine rollout.

“It’s so under control with the usual conventional ways of doing things that now we actually have the ability to properly look at innovative new ways to get to the point of being super fast in (the next phase), which almost no one’s going to have the ability to do,” she said.

“It’s endorsing your solid first plan and trying to say, hey, Nova Scotians are here to help you do an amazing job in the next round.”

The excitement around vaccine delivery is warranted, but Barrett cautions that the vaccine takes fifth place in our COVID-19 prevention tool box. Handwashing, physical distancing, and masking are what she refers to as our first line defences, followed by testing.

“Number five is your vaccine. Right now, we think it’s very helpful. We don’t know for how long it’s very helpful and it certainly doesn’t change your immunity right off the bat,” Barrett said.

“And not everybody responds. And so, no, nothing changes in your daily life with numbers one, two, three, and four for quite a while yet. Masking is not going away sometime soon, folks.”

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Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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