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New Brunswick’s COVID-19 hero

Alumna Dr. Jennifer Russell’s impressive experience and training positioned New Brunswick as a leader in the fight against the pandemic

Alumni News Magazine | Fall/Winter 2020

Like many medical professionals around the world, Dr, Jennifer Russell (BSc’97), New Brunswick’s chief medical officer of health, was watching intensely as the COVID-19 virus was on the move in early 2020. Italy was a hotspot in the pandemic and, for many, a portend of just how bad things could get. By late March, close to 1,000 Italians were dying every day, the hospitals were overflowing and doctors were having to make life and death decisions. Dr. Russell knew this virus was serious and that she and her colleagues would need to be prepared to keep New Brunswickers healthy and safe, and not overwhelm the health care system.

Since that time, Dr. Russell has been thrust into the spotlight as fear and uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus gripped the world.

"As it started to march across the globe, the sobering sights on social media were htting home in a way that struck an emotional chord. I think early March is when the tide turned. We went from thinking 'We're ready and it's all good,' to 'Oh my goodness.' There was a recognition that we could be dealing with what was happening in Italy."

Luckily for New Brunswickers,  Dr. Russell was well prepared.

Whether it’s because of her years as a musical performer, her military training or her medical expertise, she’s been the calm, controlled voice of reason at the centre of the province’s successful response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With her diverse background, knowledge and widespread support from New Brunswickers, Dr. Russell has tackled the pandemic from a practical, people-focused perspective.

New Brunswick saw its first confirmed case of COVID-19 in mid-March. Prior to that, and prior to the declaration of the Emergency Measures Act in the province, Dr. Russell, her colleagues in Public Health and other departments were mustering their forces, meeting, planning and “connecting the dots” as to how New Brunswick would respond.

“The sobering sights on social media were hitting home in a way that struck an emotional chord. I think early March is when the tide turned."  

For Dr. Russell, fighting the potentially deadly virus has required the kind of strategy and full-frontal assault typical of a military operation. It has been her modus operandi as she has marshalled forces with the overriding goal of preserving the health and safety of the people of New Brunswick.

“I have a military background so for me to tap into that kind of energy and discipline was not difficult. We did actually call it a ‘battle rhythm’ with respect to the regularly scheduled updates during the day and the information sharing.”

Collaboration was also crucial. “We reached out to other departments to see who wanted to come and help out with the response and that was met with great enthusiasm. So in terms of pulling together as a department, and in terms of pulling together as government, it was very impressive. We had bumps along the way in terms of aligning at certain times, but we really worked together to overcome those things.”

A key part of Dr. Russell’s battle plan was clear, honest communication with government officials and the public. It has been one of the most successful elements of her campaign as New Brunswickers regularly tuned in to listen or watch her reports - there have been hundreds - on what was happening and what needed to be done. Her compassionate and empathic tone resonated throughout her briefings, and were a calming force among the chaos. 

“You really have to have a single voice and a single message - a unified message. I think one of the things that helped us early on was that the government was willing to listen to the idea that, as much as possible, we need to keep extraneous noise from distracting people from our main messages.There were things people could do and many things they couldn’t do and that’s where the resilience kicked in.”

She says that New Brunswick’s battle against COVID-19 to-date has been largely a success. But much depends on the commitment of individuals to guard against the virus.

“If every individual takes responsibility for protecting themselves and protecting others, I think we can see success,” she says. “But success doesn’t mean zero cases and it doesn’t mean zero risk. Success means that sweet spot between a high functioning economy and a society that keeps people healthy from a physical, mental health and social determinants of health perspective, and the risk of COVID and exponential growth in numbers of cases.”

“Success means that sweet spot between a high functioning economy and a society that keeps people healthy, and the risk of COVID and exponential growth in numbers of cases.”

Dr. Russell is effusive in her praise for the public health team. “What impressed me is the staff here in terms of passion and energy. People came in with their sleeves rolled up, willing to work long hours and that was inspiring to see on a daily basis.”

“You need a lean, nimble team that can adapt quickly,” says Dr. Russell. “We all worked harder, but it was imperative that we worked as smart as possible. We have been very fortunate so far in terms of our approach and in terms of minimizing the damage from COVID itself from a health perspective. But the secondary effects, the unintended consequences, are quite huge. Some would say the emotional trauma of this, as well as some of the financial issues, will be with us for a long time.”

That concern for preventing and managing chronic public health issues is a passion of Dr. Russell’s.

Originally from Bathurst, NB, Dr. Russell studied science at UNB before transferring to Memorial University in St. John’s, NL, to study medicine. She returned to New Brunswick to complete the family medicine residency program offered through Dalhousie University. She joined the military in her second year of medical school, and between 1997 and 2007, she served as a medical officer in the Canadian Armed Forces.

The military, she says, has its own public health system that focuses on preventive medicine, including immunization programs and screening people to make sure they are fit for  deployment. Upon leaving the Canadian Armed Forces, she worked briefly for Veterans Affairs and then in family medicine and mental health in Fredericton, including several years at the Victoria Health Centre’s substance use disorder services clinic where she helped people addicted to opioids.

Dr. Jennifer Russell wearing a facemask

All of this early training and experience was feeding Dr. Russell’s growing interest in public health and her compassion for people in need.

“Working as a family physician, I could really see the chronic diseases manifesting themselves in the population, often at young ages, with respect to obesity, cardiovascular disease and things like that,” she says. “I think what became clear is I could write prescriptions for people to look after these conditions, but I started to become very interested in what upstream work could be done to help prevent those chronic diseases in the first place.”

Not long after, Dr. Russell took on the roles of acting regional medical officer of health and deputy chief medical officer of health, before moving into acting chief medical officer of health and her current role as chief since  2018. Her breadth of experience, her fluency in New Brunswick’s two official languages and her dedication  to public health have helped her navigate the uncharted waters of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The past nine months of the pandemic have been intense, but through itall, Dr. Russell has maintained her calm demeanor. She believes in the importance of mindfulness and of being aware in the moment. She says we are living through a situation that, in our generation, we have not seen  or known before. We have never had  to cope with this level of stress as a population.

“For me, to bring the energy I need to my work every day, I had to have a feeling of centeredness and well-being for myself personally. To be able to bring that to my work, project that calm to the public, I needed to have a good sense of what I needed to succeed.”

 “To be able to bring that to my work, project that calm to the public, I needed to have a good sense of what I needed to succeed.”

Keeping herself centred may have come from one of her great loves - music. Dr. Russell is an accomplished musician and is well known on the Fredericton music scene. In addition to singing everything from gospel to jazz, she plays the saxophone and piano.

However she does it, she’s been able to stay centred and focused as a guiding light in the storm for New Brunswickers. She is quick to credit New Brunswickers for doing a very good job of listening to the messages and abiding by public health directives. But she worries people could get distracted by erroneous messages.

“Where we could get into trouble is with social media, misinformation and inflaming situations that don’t need any extra stress added to them. Those are some areas that are risky for our success.”

Dr. Russell believes the COVID-19 pandemic has changed things forever in our world. How it will unfold in the future is difficult to foresee. She does think some good has come out of it: closer family connections; a decrease in the “hustle and bustle” of life; and less travel, which has positive environmental impacts.

“Ideally, we need to find a way to live with this virus that doesn’t have really negative impacts on society, the economy and peoples’ mental and physical health,” she says. “It’s going to be a learning experience and I don’t think it’s a race to the finish line like who is going to figure this out first. We’re all learning together, we’re all learning from each other.” 

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