Photo caption: Residents of long-term care facilities in Canada have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 due to a dysfunctional care system and a lack of action to combat the spread of infection.
To date, a staggering 81 per cent of COVID-19 deaths in Canada are attributable to long-term care facilities. This not only reflects the way we knew COVID-19 could ravage the elderly, but also reveals a care system in shambles, to which eyes have been long averted.
The devastation COVID-19 could inflict on residents of long-term care facilities should not have been surprising, given the vulnerability of older populations to the virus. Alarming fatality rates had already been reported at outbreaks in other care facilities such as in Wuhan, China.
Canada’s first outbreak in a long-term care facility came in early March in British Columbia. Swift measures were taken to reduce the spread of the virus by providing adequate personal protective equipment to staff. Measures were taken to reduce the number of healthcare providers working in multiple facilities, a circumstance known to exacerbate transmission. Due to decisive action, COVID-19 deaths in long-term care facilities in British Columbia remain relatively low, numbered at 115 as of June 11th.
Other provinces have fared far worse. Quebec and Ontario were slow to instruct care facility workers not to work at multiple care homes. By then, the crisis was well underway. Officials focused on making sure hospitals had the resources they needed to combat the flood of cases expected to require hospitalization or critical care. Meanwhile, lack of action in long-term care facilities in Ontario and Quebec resulted in needlessly high death tolls.
Quebec has seen more than 2,500 deaths in long-term care facilities and Ontario 1,500. At least 273 homes in Quebec have seen outbreaks to date, along with at least 300 homes in Ontario. In response to the provinces’ pleas for help, more than 1,600 members of the Canadian Armed Forces were dispatched to long-term care facilities throughout the two provinces in order to curb an ultimately avoidable crisis that has been years in the making.
For many family members, the pain of bereavement has been met with the unknowable question of whether there was peace in the passing of their loved ones. Recent military reports in Ontario homes of neglect of and aggression toward residents, as well as of residents having been heard crying out for help for hours and found left in soiled diapers. These reports have led to inquiries into COVID-19 deaths in these homes and the seizing of control of five Ontario facilities by the government.
It was a deeply flawed system rife with vulnerabilities, needing only a simple trigger to topple the initial domino in a deadly cascade. Long-term care facilities with old infrastructure, limited capacity for social distancing, and a high level of contact between the residents, health care providers, and visiting family, were from the outset not in a position to effectively handle a viral pandemic. Many health care providers were also working at multiple facilities and being paid low wages with few benefits and no sick pay, directly contributing to the surge in cases.
Changes to the care system have been promised, though few have been implemented. Low rates of facility inspection, a lack of care standards, and poor working conditions have ultimately exacerbated neglect. COVID-19, coupled to a shocking lack of response given numerous warning signs, opened a concealed crack in a care system into a chasm into which the innocent elderly fell.
While British Columbia has been better able to mitigate the spread of infection, three care homes have also been placed under the jurisdiction of the provincial government due to insufficient care.
At the least, residents of long-term care facilities should be able to pass the remainder of their years with care and a consideration of their dignity. We cannot know just how many of our elderly were stripped of the respect and attentiveness owed them as members of a society, and, more fundamentally, as members of humanity.
It is an injustice that a virus long warned to most severely afflict the elderly should have been allowed to spread disproportionately through their care homes. For all of the damage the pandemic has precipitated, longstanding inaction gave way to preventable tragedy.
By: Natalie Workewych
Natalie is a PhD Student studying Pharmacology at the University of Toronto. Her academic background includes an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry and Pharmacology. She hopes to encourage ideas through writing, and bring thoughts on science to anyone the least bit curious.
What does mental health look like in the age of COVID-19? It’s still too early to tell. Photo by Serkan Göktay, pexels.com
The number of Canadians expressing increased levels of anxiety and depression has quadrupled since the arrival of COVID-19, according to a recent report by Mental Health Research Canada.
Ontario responded by making therapy free for people with anxiety or depression. Minister of Health Christine Elliott explained that individuals will be assessed by a “trained mental health clinician” and then “offered a therapy program that best addresses their level of need.”
Research is underway to better understand the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of Canadians. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto regularly updates its survey numbers online.
CAMH found that 25 per cent of respondents report moderate to severe anxiety levels. Women, people with children under the age of 18, and younger adults (aged 18-39) are more likely to feel anxious and depressed during COVID-19. People with a job that exposes them to high risk of infection are also more likely to have high levels of anxiety. Job loss also negatively affected people’s mental health.
“This is the first of a series of surveys,” explains Hayley Hamilton, a senior scientist in the Institute for Mental Health Policy Research at CAMH. “We asked a series of questions, such as ‘To what extent are you worried about the impact of COVID-19 on your personal finances, about getting COVID-19?’”
Hamilton says these questions help link COVID-related events to the person’s mental health at the time. As data rolls in from proceeding surveys, she is getting a clearer picture of how events of the day are affecting people’s wellbeing.
People have been dramatically affected by social isolation and overall uncertainty of what is to come.
“We have to be on the lookout for changes in how the population is adjusting,” Hamilton said. “As we re-open, what are people experiencing? Are anxiety levels going down? Are people drinking less? We’re hoping to see reductions in loneliness as people re-engage on a personal level with others.”
More information is needed on the mental health impact of COVID-19 in Canada. However, research from China offers insight into what we might expect. Just days before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, scientists in China began surveying populations for psychological distress.
Cuiyan Wang, a researcher at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at Huaibei Normal University, measured the connection between the pandemic and people’s mental states. Results of the study are published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Wang and colleagues collected data on how people were coping just two weeks after the initial outbreak in China, one day after the WHO declared the virus and international public emergency.
The study examined 1,210 respondents from 194 cities. Of this population, 53.8 per cent reported a moderate to severe psychological impact score. In a follow-up study a month later, Wang found that people felt less distressed as the government took action to contain the virus. Most people surveyed were concerned about their family contracting the virus. They also were more likely to report anxiety if they were feeling physical symptoms associated with the virus.
Jianyu Qiu and a team from the Shanghai Mental Health Center shed additional light on the link between COVID-19 and mental health in China. Their study, published in March, analyzed 52,730 survey responses. Of these, 53 per cent reported a moderate or severe psychological impact from COVID-19. Migrant workers experienced the highest levels of distress. This was due to concerns about virus exposure when returning to work, reduced work hours, and reduced income. People over the age of 60 were also among the most vulnerable to distress, as COVID-19 is particularly lethal to this age group. The study also found that women were vulnerable to distress and more likely to develop post-traumatic distress disorder. This suggests that COVID-19 will adversely affect the mental health of some groups more than others, particularly if they are more at risk of infection.
Hamilton’s research reveals that women, people with children, and people who have lost their job are taking the brunt of psychological distress in Ontario. But some populations remain unaccounted for.
So far in the province, 80 per cent of COVID-19 deaths have occurred in long-term care. In Toronto, the five most-affected neighborhoods are more likely to have low-income, racialized, and immigrant populations. The pandemic is also adversely affecting homeless shelters’ ability to provide adequate support to people on the street—a population already vulnerable to physical and mental health conditions. More research is necessary to determine how these peoples’ mental health are affected by the increased risk of infection and death.
By: Eric Dicaire
Eric Dicaire is a communicator and thinker based out of Ottawa, Canada. He currently holds a Master’s degree in Communication from the University of Ottawa, and is the communications coordinator for the Bruyère Research Institute. He enjoys examining how people think about and interact with media, and how these interactions influence public discourse in Canada. He aspires to be a life-long learner, looking for new ways to challenge his own biases and exploring new concepts and ideas.
A tiger paces in its cage at Winnipeg's Assiniboine Park zoo. A PinP photo.
A study just published in the journal, Facets, begins positively enough. It acknowledges that members of Canada's Accredited Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA - the private, non-profit charity representing thirty such institutions), do try to be leaders in researching this field and, that they do take part in programs aimed at species survival by breeding animals in captivity, then re-introducing them into the wild.
And on its own website, CAZA claims, "We are behind some of the most remarkable conservation success stories. This includes, bringing species such as the Black Footed Ferret and the Vancouver Island Marmot back from the brink of extinction,” for example.
However, in some key areas, the researchers (a team of two biologists from Laurentian University in Sudbury) suggest, CAZA and its members are falling short.
Zoos and aquariums could be "important resources in mitigating biodiversity loss. And the credibility of zoos as conservation organizations can only be enhanced by the production of peer-reviewed science in this field."
Yet, while CAZA members are turning out more such research (still significantly less than their US counterparts and most in "zoo-centric" journals), most are not on the topic of biodiversity conservation at all, but on veterinary science, instead.
"Few studies have explored their contribution to biodiversity conservation efforts and research productivity in general."
Increasing collaboration with academic institutions would be one way for CAZA to overcome that shortcoming. So, “It is puzzling that collaborations between these groups are rare. Academics can use the unique environment zoos and aquariums provide for studying species, whereas academic research based on field observations may increase the success of reintroduction efforts led by zoos and aquariums.”
This new research comes to light against the backdrop of extinctions hanging over tens of thousands of Earth's wild species, “ due to widespread degradation of global ecosystems caused by humans.”
By: Larry Powell
I’m Larry Powell. an eco-journalist living in Shoal Lake, Manitoba. I’m a member of the SWCC and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I’m authorized to receive embargoed material through the Science Media Centre of Canada, the Royal Society, NatureResearch and the World Health Organization. This allows me to “get a jump” on important stories by fleshing them out with fact-checks and interviews, in advance. Often, this arms me with a “hot-off-the-press” story that’s ready to go, the moment the embargo is lifted.
I’m prepared to supply interested publications with important stories in the field of the Earth Sciences – stories often stranger than fiction! I publish www.PlanetInPeril.ca (PinP), where science gets respect.
Global climate change strike. Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
You could be forgiven for thinking that the world has forgotten all about climate change in the face of the immediate, made-for-Hollywood crisis of COVID-19. Commentators and climate scientists clearly feel the neglect  and in response they’ve generated their own minor epidemic of articles and blogs comparing the pandemic to climate change.
These commentaries have appeared in forums as varied as Yale Environment 360 , World Economic Forum , The Conversation [4, 5], and the CBC . They draw loose parallels between the dynamics of climate change and COVID-19, and conclude that humans only respond to a threats after it’s become a crisis . Some go further, asserting that our handling of the pandemic holds lessons for how we can deal with climate change. One claims our collective response to Covid-19 "proves" we can act rapidly to reduce global warming .
Such hopeful comparisons seem overdrawn.
Climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic are different types of crises and they develop at different speeds. Thinking about them triggers different psychological reactions. Both are complex problems, but in scale and complexity, the challenge of climate change greatly exceeds that of COVID-19. These differences lead to disparities in the ability (and willingness) of governments and individuals to influence their outcomes. In fact, our response to the virus may teach us more about how not to tackle the climate crisis than about how to address it.
Relative speed is the most obvious variable separating COVID-19 from climate change. The virus surprised the world with its rapid onset and the breakneck pace with which it challenged and sometimes overwhelmed national health care systems. Climate change, by contrast, is a slow-burn crisis, at least from the human point of view. The policy response to climate change has been even slower.
Our approach to climate policy could be compared to the pre-World-War-II appeasement of Hitler by Britain’s government. Throughout the 1930s, the Brits continued hoping for the best while conspicuously failing to prepare for the war everyone knew was coming. Does that sound like the last 30 years of climate negotiations to you?
With COVID-19, however, war has arrived. The Blitz of consequences is upon us. The emergency could not be clearer. People are dying and our medical defenses are stretched to the breaking point. Governments must react.
The speed and immediacy of a crisis directly affects our psychological response to it. COVID-19 could kill you by this time next week. It’s the sabre-tooth tiger hidden in the grass, which triggers our deepest and most ancient fears. Collectively, we’re fighting it with everything we’ve got. Individually, we understand the need to avoid the existential threat. So, most of us cooperate with public health measures, hide out in our apartments, and practice social distancing.
By contrast, psychological barriers to climate action hinge on people seeing it as an abstract problem whose consequences always lie somewhere in the future. These barriers are personal, collective, and political. They’ve managed to thwart policies and actions to combat climate change for the last 30 years. The psychologist Robert Gifford calls these “the dragons of inaction” . The dragons include ignorance of consequences and causes of climate change, numbness in the face of its all-encompassing complexity, misunderstanding scientific uncertainty, and of course, good old denial.
The emergency response to COVID-19 is unprecedented and has jolted the global economy. Managing the health of infected patients is medically and administratively complex. However, the pandemic presents us with a well-defined, singular challenge. We understand its characteristics and can tackle it with a fairly limited set of established technologies.
Climate change, on the other hand, engages the entire Earth System in a dizzyingly complex set of positive and negative feedbacks involving the biosphere, water and weather, ocean currents and ice, atmospheric dynamics, and the human economy. The technologies, policies, and long-term strategies needed to mitigate climate change are quite different to those needed to resolve COVID-19. Some of them have yet to be invented.
Which brings us, inevitably, to the issue of control. Our success at controlling the spread of the pandemic has been patchy, to say the least. But in principle we could have limited the spread of the virus with tighter border controls, more resilient health care systems, and better communications.
Climate change is a borderless, planet-wide challenge that demands extraordinary international cooperation. Such cooperation may not currently be geopolitically feasible . And, speculation about geoengineering notwithstanding , many aspects of the global climate and carbon cycles will forever be beyond human control. Meeting this global challenge requires a wholesale transformation of our economies, of society, and our relationship with the Earth. It’s a fact many political leaders still seem unwilling to face.
A few encouraging lessons from COVID-19 might be applied to climate change. We have rediscovered that when the chips are down, we can take extreme action to tackle a crisis. We now understand there’s a critical time lag between the causes (viral transmission, latent cases) and effects (spikes in mortality, overwhelmed health systems) of COVID-19. The USA and UK discovered, belatedly, that procrastination during this time lag would only make the crisis worse.
Climate scientists understand there are multiple such lags between cause and effect built into the climate system. We must not be forced to experience the consequences of these lags for climate change, because a few more years of procrastination will close the narrow window of opportunity that remains for effective action.
Sadly, it seems the potential lessons of COVID-19 for climate policy could be lost in the rush to restore business as usual. Many fear that our obsession with the pandemic and subsequent economic recovery could eclipse environmental concerns for years. Even as oil prices crash, the governments of the USA, Canada, and Alberta are spending billions of dollars to shore up shale oil, oilsands, and pipelines . And in a mute commentary on our current priorities, the venue for a critical round of UN climate talks in November has been converted to a hospital for COVID-19 patients .
By: Andrew Park PhD
Andrew Park was born and raised in the United Kingdom and has lived in Canada for almost 30 years. He obtained his BSc at Simon Fraser University before completing his MSc and PhD in Forestry at the University of Toronto. He completed his post-doctoral studies at the University of Quebec and has worked at the University of Winnipeg since 2004.
Andrew has done forest research in Canada, Mexico, Panama, Bolivia, and Malawi. Aside from his areas of expertise, Andrew's research interests include sustainability, environmental ethics and philosophy, and Canadian Natural Resources Policy.
Like most Canadians, I’ve been spending a lot more time at home. Looking through my kitchen window has become my favourite way to enjoy the outside world.
Since early April, I’ve noticed a pair of red-breasted American robins coming to my backyard every day. They have a nest somewhere between my neighbour’s house and mine. Another species also visits my yard: grackles, recognizable by their iridescent blue heads and black bodies.
A male American robin is one of the species house-bound Canadians can observe from their homes. © Tony Beck
These ones appear to have some aggression issues with the robin pair: Most interactions between them end in one bird chasing away the other.
This is common, explained Tony Beck. He’s an experienced birder, wildlife photographer, tour guide, and member of the Ottawa Field Naturalists Club (OFNC).
Tony Beck (green) during a photo workshop last fall in Algonquin Park © Nina Stavlund
Beck has been interested in wildlife since he was a child, whether he was fishing with his father in Eastern Ontario or exploring Lanark County at his uncle’s.
“I felt good being surrounded by nature and wildlife,” he says.
In the 80s and 90s Beck became more involved with the naturalist community and made his work a full-time career. His wildlife tour and photography business, Always an Adventure, is based in Ottawa, Ont.
Beck says after spending their winters in the United States, grackles and American robins fly back to the Ottawa area in mid-February. When they return, they establish territory.
“They’re going to start working at the nest straightaway,” he says. “You see them paired off and walking around.”
As for the backyard robins? Beck suspects they might already have fledged young who are almost ready to leave the nest.
Grackles follow a similar pattern. A pair have nested in the backyard across from mine.
Not all is peaceful between the birds. American robins belong to the thrush genus (Turdidae), while grackles are blackbirds (Quiscalus).
“They're not that closely related but they do occupy the same type of niche,” Beck says. “So, there are some territory territorial disputes, maybe for food and things like that, but they normally don't get along.”
In fact, grackles look at other birds’ nests as feeding opportunities. Beck points out that grackles will look for eggs and nestlings.
“They won’t think twice and they’ll rob the nest.”
Parent robins are wary of grackles. They defend their nests and look out for each other whenever a plague of grackles is about. Ganging up in these large groups makes them much more intimidating to smaller birds. There’s a perceptible tension in the air that comes with the flapping of their black wings.
Common grackles like this one provide drama as they harass other birds, stealing food and raiding nests. © Tony Beck
The robin pair will chase away a stray grackle, returning to perch on the fence and breathing heavily. I’ve seen grackles steal worms from the robins’ beaks.
“This kind of drama goes on all the time,” Beck says.
Budding birders like me can observe this behaviour in suburban areas like our backyards, or in a natural area like in Greenbelt trails (while observing proper social distancing, of course).
Since worldwide stay-at-home orders have been put in place, news outlets across the world have reported animals coming back to cities and developed areas. Beck says they’ve always been there, “regardless of whether there’s people or not.”
While it’s true that animals are more inclined to come out right now, they’re usually just shy and furtive when there are people out. Before the coronavirus pandemic, Beck would go outside early in the morning so he could focus on finding animals and avoid disruptive crowds.
If you want to start looking for interesting species in your area - whether you’re walking around your neighbourhood or watching from your window - there are a few things to keep in mind.
“People have to become sensitive to the nature of wildlife,” Beck says. He laments beginning birders and wildlife photographers pestering a bird’s nesting area or baiting predatory owls with live mice, for example, disrupting the natural learning process for many species.
“It’s good that people are becoming interested in nature,” he says. “But please be sensitive to the animal.”
Beck wants enthusiasts to prioritize the animals’ needs before their own and to respect the animals’ space. Observers should be conscious of behaviours that show the animal is exerting extra effort to avoid you. Leave those animals alone.
This is where classic birder tools like binoculars and telephoto lenses come in handy, Beck says. He also recommends a field guide like the Sibley Field Guide. This way, you can observe wildlife from a non-intrusive distance and identify and distinguish different species.
Early birders can get involved in citizen science by participating in February’s annual bird count, where people across the world go out and count different species as migration season begins.
Even if you’ve missed this opportunity, spring is still an exciting time for naturalists like Beck. Eastern bluebirds, yellow-rumped warblers, ruby-crowned kinglets, scarlet tanagers, and black-throated blue warblers are some of the rainbow of birds he’s looking out for in the Ottawa area this spring.
A Blackburnian warbler rests in a tree in Point Pelee in May after a spring flight from as far south as South America. The birds' spring migration can take them as far northwest as the Prairies. © Tony Beck
Even though the spring migration “peters out towards the end of May,” you can still look out for the birds heading to the High Arctic in early June, Beck says.
“It’s amazing what things you can find when you start looking.”
By: Adenieke Lewis-Gibbs
Adenieke Lewis-Gibbs is a Journalism and French double major at Carleton University. Her pastimes include reading, painting and enjoying the outdoors - real jungles and concrete jungles alike. She is a repeat sustainability and circular economy writer and a both a big fan and a big sceptic of recycling. She is just as excited move back home to Toronto after school as she is to travel the world.
Photo by Stijn te Strake on Unsplash
I toss the overpriced ground beef into my basket, my latex gloves making an uncomfortable squeak as the plastic-wrapped package leaves my hands. I'm still unsure which pill is harder to swallow. Is it the point I am wearing more personal protective equipment to do my grocery shopping than I had as a research assistant in grad school? Or that this pack of hamburger costs an hour's wage?
With meat packaging plants in Alberta and BC scrambling to reopen after staff testing positive for COVID-19, this disruption to the beef and poultry supply chain is beginning to show at local supermarkets.
This isn't the first time the meat supply has been disrupted by a disease. Between 2014 and 2015, United States poultry producers had to slaughter more than 50 million chickens and turkeys because of the HPAI avian flu threat. The cull affected poultry farms across 15 states, threatening farmers' livelihoods, driving up the price of poultry, and ultimately resulting in more than 30 countries banning American poultry. The Canadian meat market isn’t immune to these challenges either. Alberta faced similar issues with the rise of mad cow disease in the mid-2000s.
So, whether it’s due to staffing issues, or zoonotic (animal born) diseases, how do we prevent supply chain disruptions in the agriculture-meat industry?
Future Fields, an Edmonton-based biotech company, proposes what seems like a near-impossible solution - to remove animals from the equation entirely. Founded by a group of socioeconomically motivated friends, the firm specializes in producing cell growth media. The growth media acts as the main nutrient or ‘food’ source for the cell and in turn, will be used by cellular agriculture companies to develop products such as lab-grown meat.
Such innovations could help ameliorate supply chain issues seen in traditional agriculture. It could also free up grain for human consumption by increasing the amount of arable land for crop growth and redirecting grain supplies from animal feed.
So how is lab-grown meat produced? Matthew Anderson-Baron, co-founder and chief scientific officer for the company, admits even he finds it a bit "sci-fi."
Anderson-Baron completed his PhD in Cell Biology from the University of Alberta, where he also recently finished a post-doc focused on culturing stem cells to grow into tissues such as cartilage.
"Cell agriculture can encompass any animal-derived product including milk or leather,” he says. “Meat is just the holy grail everyone is after."
The process begins by taking a small biopsy of animal tissue. In the case of meat, this means taking a sample from the kind muscle the desired cut of meat comes from. From here, scientists isolate stem cells from the tissue and put them in specialized media (provided by Future Fields), which contains signaling factors that tell them how to develop and grow.
“Depending on the signaling factors we give the stem cell population, we can create a variety of cell types from that single biopsy,” Anderson-Baron says.
Anderson-Baron admits this isn't the full equation. Some types of meat are more natural to replicate than others.
"The most straightforward product is probably ground beef," he says, "Things like steak get a bit more complicated as the cells need to be grown on a 3D-scaffold."
“Replicating the authentic taste of meat requires growing more than just muscle cells.” Anderson-Baron explained.
These muscle cells must be co-cultured with other tissues such as fat that add to the flavour of meat. Essentially, the process demands creation of a local neighbourhood of various cell types that can survive together until the finished product is fully grown. Here is where the media produced by Future Fields become essential. Companies don’t have to tweak this recipe and scale it up for production, as this has already been done.
New technology like cell-cultured meat is definitively disruptive to the current way of doing things. Still, Anderson-Baron says there are some key advantages.
"For one, we are controlling what the end product looks like at the cellular level,” he says. “So we can reduce things like the amount trans fats in the final product, actually making it healthier than organic meat."
Since lab meat is produced in sterile lab environments, it reduces risk of diseases between animals held in close living quarters. This could protect not only animal health but forestall emergence of viruses like COVID-19, which traces back to a live animal market.
The goal at Future Fields is not to replace traditional meat entirely. However, in a letter to the Lancet Planetary Health journal, a group of more than 50 scientists are calling for the world to hit our “meat peak,” by 2030 as part of climate change initiatives. They stress it is important to recognize traditional animal agriculture will no longer be able to meet global protein demands. These are on the rise as well, driven by a combination of sustained global population growth and a rise of the middle class in developing nations.
Right now, the concept of lab-grown meat remains fairly abstract, particularly since many people are concerned about consuming what is considered natural. Despite this, Anderson-Baron is optimistic.
"Once people can see it and it becomes more normalized, people will care about it!” he says. “But consumers care about a lot of things, cost, taste, appearance, and we can make all those factors identical to conventional meat."
By: Miranda Stahn
A prairie girl at heart, Miranda completed both her Bachelor's and Master's of Science at the University of Alberta. Her thesis research focused on classifying new bacterial viruses for a unique class of bacteria known as Methanotrophs - named for their ability to survive off of unusual carbon compounds such as methane.
Outside of her studies, Miranda has always been passionate about science communications and outreach. Since undergrad, she has been involved in several outreach initiatives run through well-known programs such as the Telus World of Science Edmonton (TWOSE), the University of Alberta's DiscoverE, WISEST (Women in Scholarship Engineering Science and Technology), and Science Slam Canada.
Miranda is committed to making science accessible to everyone and firmly believes that effective and entertaining science writing is key to helping the public disseminate truth from fiction.
For more details, please check out her LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/miranda-stahn-93229483/
“Two physicians during the COVID-19 pandemic bridged by artificial intelligence” This cover has been designed using resources from Freepik.com and DrawKit.io
As COVID-19 cases rise globally, one must wonder what would help ease its burden within our society. A solution is artificial intelligence. Here’s why.
Artificial intelligence involves using machines to mimic human learning and thinking. It is a diverse area and many applications can be implemented for specific tasks. For instance, we can use AI to teach machines to recognize specific patterns.
Why would this be useful? During the current pandemic, doctors are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of cases to be analyzed. Symptoms are similar to other illnesses and cases keep piling high. Artificial intelligence can enable faster data analysis, ready to be interpreted by doctors, in effect acting as a ‘force multiplier’ in this battle against the virus.
Why aren't we doing this already? Currently, AI has been used to accurately predict the molecular structure of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19). This breakthrough shortens the time required to find a vaccine.
Though applications like this have been implemented, it remains a challenge to harness AI to analyze the number of COVID-19 cases that reach a hospital daily. In addition, not all countries have the necessary technology and expertise. Some are more technologically advanced, while others are still progressing.
Finding a way to introduce AI globally remains unresolved since each country’s response differs by their individual health systems and relative wealth. Though measures being taken by individual countries may be enough to get through the current crisis, we should look at ways to cooperate to combat future pandemics effectively. AI could be part of the solution.
Right now, healthcare workers are on the frontline battling COVID 19. There are simply too many patients assigned to a doctor or a nurse. This is where AI can take its place, helping healthcare workers speed up the process of treatment.
AI would not take the lead. Rather, it would augment the efforts of healthcare professionals to improve efficiency. Imagine: an emergency room flooded with coronavirus cases. Staff are overwhelmed, doing multiple tasks, some urgent, some routine such as checking vitals or taking temperature. A COVID-19-specialized AI takes this data, analyzes it, and immediately delivers the results to the doctor, who uses it to inform a recommended treatment.
On the public health front, imagine how AI-driven analysis could support much faster COVID testing, accurately reporting cases and providing the information needed to effectively implement solutions to flatten the curve.
Harnessing AI could also reduce burnout for healthcare workers. With less tedious tasks to complete, more time could be allocated in taking a breather, both physically and mentally. Doctors have the highest rate of mental illness than any other profession. About 40 doctors per 100,000 die from suicide, a rate double that of the general population. The rates are even worse during this pandemic. With physicians getting less sleep and losing more patients, their mental health succumbs to feelings of hopelessness. While reducing workloads isn’t a panacea, relieving some stress with AI is a start.
The reality is we could have been more prepared for COVID-19. We have a lot of resources to implement the next step towards technological advancement, but we don’t have the structure to make it feasible globally. Our healthcare professionals are suffering and we need better ways to support them. It is time to think about how to better implement AI to better support healthcare workers globally.
By: Roxaneh Zaminpeyma
Roxaneh is a McGill graduate who holds a Bachelor’s degree in Anatomy and Cell Biology with a minor in Social Studies of Medicine. She is an aspiring clinician-scientist who is passionate about immunology, neurodegenerative research, patient advocacy, humane caregiving as well as medical history and technology. Her goal is to translate scientific content into words and images that can be understanding to all her readers.
An empty residential street as Torontonians practice social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Natalie Workewych
COVID-19 conjures the spectre of the 1918-19 Spanish flu and the power of knowledge.
Not since the Black Death of the 14th century had humanity been so ravaged, but with the Spanish flu we at least knew we were being assaulted by a microscopic enemy, not “miasmas” or “bad air.”
Just as understanding of disease and healthcare better equipped us to handle the Spanish flu, today’s knowledge makes us more prepared to combat our current pandemic.
As with past diseases, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is an indiscriminate aggressor. It infects populations with ease, with severity largely determined by age and health status.
Today, backed by fortune only technological progress can bestow, scientists could quickly identify and understand the novel virus was spreading, and spreading rapidly, throughout the world. Knowing that COVID-19 is caused by a member of the coronavirus family of viruses, scientists and medical professionals could get to work developing screening tests, trying to identify therapies, and hurriedly moving toward a vaccine.
Modern medical understanding has been our foremost ally in the struggle against disease, but it’s an ally whose help has come only with time and incremental discoveries.
The first victims of the Black Death could not have understood their illness was being caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. They only knew what they could see: a rapid progression of blackened boils on the skin, the fever, the aches, the pains, and an almost certain descent into death.
Many of those first affected by the Spanish Flu during its first wave in the spring of 1918 suffered only mildly, leading many experts to believe the illness too mild to be an influenza. With the second wave in the fall of 1918 came the shock of ominous numbers of deaths within hours of initial symptoms. The world took notice.
Though those who suffered through pandemics of the past could only wish to look to a more medically advanced society, we can look back and benefit from history’s lessons.
We don’t need to wait to know where a disease comes from or to fully understand it to protect ourselves. Strategies of social distancing and self-isolation mitigate the spread of disease have been long employed and remain the most effective for reducing transmission.
Even imperfect understanding led to practices to limit the spread of plague during the Black Death. Though paramount to trade, ships arriving in Venetian ports were forced to sit at anchor for quaranta giorni - 40 days - before crews could disembark and conduct business. It is from this practice that we derive the word quarantine.
During the Spanish flu pandemic, people were implored not to shake hands, to avoid interaction with others and to stay indoors. Public spaces such as libraries and schools were widely shut down. In New York City, travel on public transit was staggered to limit person-to-person contact.
While modern medical treatments and vaccines have saved an untold number of lives, history shows the value of social distancing and isolation of those already sick in reducing disease transmission.
SARS-CoV-2 has upended the normalcy of our lives, is overwhelming healthcare systems, and risks devastation to the world’s economies.
Though we face a new pandemic, we are uniquely equipped with the lessons of history and what modern medicine can provide.
There is redemption in what we know.
I’m doing neck mobilizations, a technique used to improve joint mobility and reduce pain. Today, I’m doing them by myself, sort of.
I lean my neck toward my left shoulder, stretch out my arms to the right and increase the tension of the towel wrapped around my neck. The opposing forces create an intense but comfortable stretch in my right neck muscles. I straighten my neck but keep the towel taut, then repeat the cycle 10 times.
Claire Harris gives a patient acupuncture to relieve muscle tension. The adjustment to virtual physiotherapy does not allow for this type of treatment. Photo: Jacky Chow
Typically when my neck is sore, I have the experienced hands of my physiotherapist, Claire Harris, working out the knots. In a sense, I still do.
Harris explains via virtual (or video) physiotherapy, how this exercise will improve my neck range of motion and calm my nervous system. She then moves on to showing me exercises to strengthen my upper back. At the same time, I’m quizzing her.
My virtual physio sessions have been the norm since March 27, the day the Alberta provincial government announced closure of clinics to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
“The method by which we had to provide care needed to change in a very short period,” Harris says. “There are disadvantages. We’re not able to palpate structures with our hands and we lose some of the therapeutic interaction. But there are also positives: research strongly supports emphasizing active treatment, which empowers the patient.”
Some patients may even find unexpected benefits from virtual treatment. Harris says a patient who once only requested manual therapy has had to adapt to a more exercise-based treatment.
“She has taken more ownership of her recovery with guidance from myself,” Harris says. “She’s doing very well. She’s gone from minimal physical activity to exercising every day.”
Harris says the recent adjustment of peoples’ daily routines, as well as the mental stress of COVID-19, has had a significant impact on the chronic pain population.
“People who are now working from home may have suboptimal desk setups, or they’re working from the kitchen table, or maybe they’re spending a lot more time picking up after children, which can cause flare-ups.”
She explains stress alone acts as a mechanism that increases output of the sympathetic nervous system which is responsible for the “fight or flight” response. This makes nerve endings and areas of the brain more sensitive, causing pain, or the perception of pain, to increase.
Continuing to provide people with management strategies, especially for those in more severe pain, gives people an alternative to seeking emergency services. In a time when a visit to the emergency room not only means potential exposure to COVID-19, but undue stress on an already overworked healthcare system, these virtual treatments are especially valuable.
“I think initially patients are skeptical about doing an online treatment, but once they do a session, most of them are quite open to it,” Harris says.
She asks me to repeat the movements she used to assess me at the beginning of our appointment. I bring my ear toward my left shoulder with considerably more ease. It seems my range of motion has improved.
“The intent of physiotherapy is to try and customize exercises specific to the patient. We’re not a moot point just because we can’t touch you.”
By: Kate F. Mackenzie
Kate F. Mackenzie is a journalism student from Calgary with a degree in Kinesiology.
While scientists around the world work toward a COVID-19 vaccine, convalescent plasma therapy may offer hope to those stricken with the disease.
With a vaccine against COVID-19 still many months away, scientists are looking to the blood of those who have recovered from the disease to develop a treatment. Evocative of vampiric imagery as it may be, this strategy is rooted in a medical treatment proven to be effective over a century of use.
The approach is to transfuse convalescent plasma, or antibody-rich plasma of recovered patients, into COVID-19 patients with active infections. The hope is these antibodies can help those patients to fight off the disease.
Detection of a virus kickstarts an individual’s immune system, stimulating it to fight infection. Antibodies to a virus are produced as part of this response, each functioning like a targeted, virus-eating Pac-Man, helping to reduce disease progression. When it works well, those suffering from mild COVID-19 can heal without any special medical intervention, save for over-the-counter medication such as acetaminophen for fever.
For patients battling more severe infections, such as those in respiratory distress requiring oxygen or ventilator support, the immunity boost afforded by convalescent plasma transfusion could mean the difference between death and survival.
Introducing the antibodies of recovered patients to those severely ill would be like giving them the temporary use of an additional, borrowed immune system - a supplemental defence to aid their own. With fewer viral particles present to continue wreaking havoc, symptoms would be reduced and the patient put on a quicker road to an otherwise uncertain recovery.
While there is no guarantee that convalescent plasma therapy will be successful for treating COVID-19, it has worked in the past to treat the Spanish flu and, more recently, SARS and Ebola.
Clinical studies of convalescent plasma therapy for COVID-19 are currently underway around the globe. A recent study out of China, the first global epicentre of the disease, reported a reduction in viral load, or the amount of viral particles in a patients’ systems, after treatment. The result was the recovery of five critically ill patients, giving scientists reason beyond mere hope to continue to pursue this therapeutic strategy for COVID-19.
Still, other aspects affecting the success of plasma therapy remain undetermined. The ideal range of days after a patient’s recovery during which to collect blood, as well as the dose, timing, and tolerability of treatment have yet to be fully teased out by scientists.
Another consideration is the quantity of convalescent plasma available for use as a treatment, and how it would be distributed. Should convalescent plasma therapy prove effective for COVID-19, supply of donated plasma would be limited, as only those infected and recovered could be donors. One recovered individual can provide enough plasma for two to four transfusion doses, with current dosing recommendations set at one per patient.
Therapy would be considered first for those severely ill with COVID-19 and suffering the kinds of symptoms that could prove fatal. Only once the most critically afflicted have been served could treatment be extended to prevent those more mildly sick from declining further into illness. Ultimately, the treatment could be offered to the elderly, immunocompromised and otherwise at-risk members of the public to boost immunity before a vaccine becomes available.
With every passing day, newly reported infections and deaths remind us that the search for a therapy that can be administered now is of critical importance. An alarming number of people remain infected, and many more will fall ill before the pandemic begins to abate.
The few recoveries attributed to convalescent plasma therapy remind us that wherein lies promise, lies hope. Despite the tragic loss of thousands that have died from this disease, there are many thousands more who have recovered. The antibodies they carry within them offer strength to aid global recovery.
Reinstating the normalcy we once knew is out of the question until we can all be armed with the protection that a vaccine affords. While we wait, those of us who have recovered may offer ourselves, in this time of crisis, to help in our shared cause.
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