How health research adapted to COVID-19

Everything changed March 13 of last year, when the University closed its doors because of the health risks posed by a new virus. Two days earlier, the World Health Organization had declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and even the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League unexpectedly suspended their seasons.

In the weeks that followed, habits changed, teaching changed and learning changed. So did research. It started with the suspension of all activities, including human participant interaction, which is the bulk of how our faculty members conduct research. Various labs in the Faculty collected personal protective equipment and donated it to the government because in the early days, health units were struggling to find enough protection. Labs themselves went online, trying as best they could to be interactive with the help of a team of online learning assistants.

Research topics at the University changed abruptly as well, including for many Faculty of Health professors, who began to study the implications of COVID in their areas of expertise.

Research shifted

Ellen MacEachen.Ellen MacEachen in the School of Public Health and Health Systems normally examines the design and performance of work and health systems to identify how they can be adapted to fast-changing economic, social and technological environments of our global economy. Practically speaking, she specializes in occupational health policy and the health risks of new forms of work, such as in the gig economy, made up of companies that hire independent workers instead of full-time employees to provide services.

The measures enacted in the early spring last year led MacEachen to examine the role of disease transmission in the gig economy and how gig workers could be protected. Her team received a COVID-19 Rapid Research grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and their results will be out in late summer 2021.

“Gig courier workers, such as Uber Eats, Amazon Flex, and Lyft drivers, have been busier than ever during the pandemic as the public has attempted to avoid illness by ordering take-away food, shopping online and taking ride-hails rather than public transportation,” MacEachen said. “These have all placed gig courier workers in a unique position to become infected with COVID-19 and transmit it to others as they move people, food and packages from one location to another. It is important for us to understand the risks faced by these workers and to identify tailored strategies to keep them and their customers safe.”

John Hirdes.John Hirdes, also in the School, is known for his work in geriatric assessment, mental health and health care delivery, and often researches issues in long-term care. The problems inherent in these systems became even more apparent during the pandemic, especially in long-term care homes, which have accounted for more than 80 per cent of all COVID deaths in Canada.

It was a natural segue for Hirdes and his colleagues to begin to study what was happening in select long-term care homes. He was also part of a Canadian Institute for Health Information team that reported at the Long-term Care Commission on COVID-19 on a study of 580 nursing homes in Ontario to determine what home-level factors and resident characteristics were associated with outbreaks and mortality in the first wave.

Hirdes was also involved in a study that examined mental health among the general population. The study found that younger people fared worse in terms of depression during the first wave of the pandemic, while older adults at home were the least affected.

Understanding this change

Paolo Dominelli.Other researchers in the Faculty who contributed to our growing knowledge of the virus’s effects include Paolo Dominelli in the Department of Kinesiology. He was part of a study that determined that even though it might feel like it, face masks don’t actually impede the function of breathing, even during heavy exercise.

Still others began to think about how to maintain good mental health throughout the pandemic. Troy Glover, chair of the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies, argued that cities need a ‘winter strategy’ to ensure that residents stay outdoors and connected to one another throughout those long winter months.

Troy Glover.We should be worried about an escalation of COVID-19 cases, but we should also be concerned about the negative impact of social isolation on our community,” Glover wrote. “Social isolation can severely harm our well-being, especially for those already dealing with depression. (…) Accordingly, the health benefits of social connectedness ought to outweigh the low risk of transmission in outdoor settings.”

Of course, these examples of professors who adapted their research to examine the implications of COVID are not the only ones. Everything may have changed in March 2020, but it was natural for research in the Faculty and elsewhere to try to understand our present context and situate it within current areas of expertise.

As much as this pandemic was a challenge, it also became an opportunity to understand this change.

Examples of other COVID research and activities: