Nova Scotia

COVID-19 'a humbling experience,' says Dalhousie epidemiologist

Epidemiologist Susan Kirkland is both fascinated and troubled by the COVID-19 virus, but she's also impressed by those trying to control the spread of the virus in Nova Scotia.

'It's both an epidemiologist's dream and an epidemiologist's nightmare,' says Susan Kirkland

Susan Kirkland is the head of the the department of community health and epidemiology at Dalhousie University in Halifax. (Dalhousie University)

Being an epidemiologist in the midst of a pandemic is a "dream" and a "nightmare" for Susan Kirkland.

"It's so fascinating to study all of these things all of your life and then have it unfold in front of you," she said. "But it's also an incredibly difficult time."

"This is of a magnitude that I don't think even epidemiologists would really have expected, although some people have because there [are] movies like Contagion out there."

Kirkland has researched chronic diseases and aging at Dalhousie University in Halifax, where she heads the department of community health and epidemiology. She's also a member of a federal COVID-19 task force examining immunization.

Kirkland likened the work of epidemiologists and others trying to contain the spread of a newly discovered virus to a near-impossible task.

Kirkland said to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks, it's important the province continue to resist the pressure to reopen businesses and lift restrictions quickly. (David Laughlin/CBC)

"You're trying to get up to speed very, very quickly about something you don't know," she said. "Somebody described it to me the other day as having to fly a plane while you're still building it, and that's exactly what it feels like.

"We're trying to adapt, on the fly, very quickly, all the time."

Kirkland has been impressed with the work of those tasked with trying to keep Canadians safe, both federally and in her home province.

"It takes really, really sharp minds to figure out how to tackle this pandemic and I really have gained newfound respect for all of the front-line public health workers across the country," she said.

COVID-19 was first confirmed in Nova Scotia in mid-March.

Since then, according to Kirkland, the most striking discovery has been how vulnerable elderly Nova Scotians have been to the virus.

"It has really exposed some of the cracks in our system," said Kirkland, a reference to the fact nearly 90 per cent of the COVID-19 deaths in Nova Scotia have taken place at Northwood in Halifax, the province's largest care home.

Forty-nine residents there have died from the virus or complications from it. In total, 55 Nova Scotians have died from COVID-19.

To continue to keep others safe, Kirkland endorsed the go-slow approach adopted by Nova Scotia's Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Robert Strang, who has ordered businesses closed and recommended people stay home in self-isolation as much as possible.

"Really keeping a strong handle on that, I think is critically important," said Kirkland. "And I think we have to give up things like travel for pleasure for a while."

Nearly 90 per cent of COVID-19 deaths in Nova Scotia have taken place at Northwood Halifax, the province's largest care home. (Robert Short/CBC)

She hoped the province would continue to resist the pressure to reopen businesses and lift restrictions quickly, in a rush to try to return to pre-pandemic activity.

Kirkland said that would open the door to outbreaks.

"I really believe that public health and the economy go hand in hand," she said. "We will never be able to get the economy going if we constantly have to be putting ourselves back into lockdown again."

From a professional point of view, the pandemic has been an eye-opener for Kirkland.

"For an everyday epidemiologist like me, it has been a humbling experience," she said.

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