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Connecting with communities to address COVID-19

New rapid response research projects announced at the Faculty of Community Services
May 05, 2020
covid19 community battling virus

The Faculty of Community Services (FCS) is pleased to announce funding for 10 new studies on the effects of COVID-19 in our communities. The pandemic is affecting all aspects of life, and our researchers have taken on the critical work of exploring ways to better manage COVID-19 and its impacts. This work is vital so we can respond in more equitable ways in the short-term, and prepare for unforeseen effects as the pandemic unfolds in the longer-term. "The innovative spirit of our researchers, our commitment to respond to the needs of our community partners, and the strength of our community partnerships have never been more evident or needed than right now," says Jennifer Martin, associate dean, graduate studies and scholarly, research, and creative (SRC) activity at FCS.

The 10 studies will include local, national, and international partners. They come from schools across our faculty, and each one will help clarify and respond to important aspects of living with COVID-19. As part of this rapid response, researchers are expected to share results with key stakeholders and public audiences within nine months.

3D HELPS: Emergency preparedness capacity-building in Indigenous and underserved communities

Jason Nolan, professor at the School of Early Childhood Studies and director of the Responsive Ecologies Lab, has been actively involved with design and fabrication in collaboration with under-serviced communities. This project will help marginalized and isolated communities produce their own personal protective equipment (PPE), which will be in high demand in medical centers for the foreseeable future and is also critically needed in remote and marginalized communities. 

Nolan and his team and collaborators aim to find ways to build capacity to produce PPE within Aamjiwnaang First Nation near Sarnia Ontario, external link. In finding solutions that enable the Aamjiwnaang community to produce and expand their own capacity to develop PPE, Nolan and his team expect to help many isolated and marginalized communities care for themselves during this pandemic and into the future. “Our aim is to develop a model that can be replicated in other communities, with a long-term goal of establishing local technical infrastructure that can be allocated for use in other fabrication/emergency management projects/needs,” says Nolan.

Joining Nolan in this partnership with Aamjiwnaang First Nation are Eric Liberda, School of Occupational and Public Health, Ali Mazalek, RTA School of Media, Faculty of Communication and Design (FCAD), and Gabby Resch, Synaesthetic Media Lab, FCAD. 

Focusing on strategies addressing the social distancing struggles of apartment-dwelling immigrants

Sepali Guruge, professor at the Daphne Cockwell School of Nursing (DCSN) and Research Chair in Urban Health, and her team will examine social isolation during COVID-19 among immigrant families living in high-density, high rise communities. Economic and social realities mean that many immigrants live in small apartments in multigenerational family contexts. Physical and social distancing in these contexts is challenging, and is especially difficult for older immigrants who may rely on other family members for their daily activities. Guruge will engage these underserved communities to explore how they are responding to the crisis.

In partnership with South Riverdale Community Health Centre, external link, the research team will identify effective strategies to help Torontonians living in high-density contexts maintain social distancing and mitigate the spread of the virus. The findings will be invaluable to social agencies serving immigrant communities. “The goal of this study is to identify innovative solutions that were co-created by immigrant families to apply social distancing, and to collate, analyze, and widely-share them with other immigrant families and a range of services providers across Toronto,” says Guruge.

Along with Guruge and the South Riverdale Community Health Centre, the research team will include Souraya Sidani, Canada Research Chair – Tier 1, Charlotte Lee, and Charlene Ronquillo, of the DCSN.

Alone/Together: Mothers’ experiences of parenting through COVID-19

Mothers experience unique challenges in our world, but they are being tested in unprecedented ways during the current pandemic. Professor at the School of Social Work, May Friedman, aims to understand how COVID-19 is affecting mothers. Previous research has revealed some of the unique and evolving challenges mothers face including the wage gap and gendered divisions of labour. During COVID-19, employment expectations, unemployment realities, and mothering expectations collide with homeschooling and other social expectations that are likely to fall largely on mothers. 

“In the current moment of extreme social intensity juxtaposed with social isolation, mothers are implicated in specific and complex ways; these implications are uniquely experienced based on intersectional experiences of motherhood,” explains Friedman. “Supporting mothers in telling their stories allows for these experiences to be taken seriously and may support advocacy that will allow for better social supports to mothers and families.”

Along with Friedman, the research team will include Jacqui Gingras from the Department of Sociology at the Faculty of Arts.

The impact of COVID-19 on health informatics: Supporting health information technology innovation through timely knowledge synthesis and exchange

Social distancing has led to increased use of technology, including within healthcare settings. The current reality has necessitated this change very quickly, but with little analysis. This project aims to examine what has worked best internationally and share best practices.  

Daphne Cockwell School of Nursing professor, Charlene Ronquillo, along with international collaborators, will conduct an international, cross-sectional exploratory study to collect feedback from those working with healthcare information technology in order to identify effective technologies. 

“Health informatics professionals do not have the capacity, during the crisis, to share their experiences and expertise broadly with others, so we hope to bridge that gap,” says Ronquillo. “Valuable knowledge is being developed on employing effective technology solutions, but it’s currently held in silos. This will be the first centralized platform to collect and share information about what works best in clinical settings, internationally.”

In a truly global effort, joining her in this project are Maxim Topaz, external link, Columbia University School of Nursing (New York City, USA), Laura-Maria Peltonen, external link, University of Turku Nursing Science (Turku, Finland), Dari Alhuwail,, external link Kuwait University (Kuwait City, Kuwait), James Mitchell, external link, Keele University (Staffordshire, UK), and Tracie Risling,, external link University of Saskatchewan, with support from the Canadian Nursing Informatics Association, external link, Alliance for Nursing Informatics (USA), external link, and the International Medical Informatics Association (International), external link.

Nurses’ emotional and psychological experiences of working in COVID-19 acute-care hospital environments

Nurses are on the front lines of the acute care environments of our healthcare system; they are the human face of the response to COVID-19 and the main point of contact and connection for patients and families. They work long hours caring directly for patients and are working tirelessly to equip themselves with knowledge about the causes, transmission, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of this novel virus. In the context of a shifting knowledge base concerning transmission and virulence, it is essential that nurses’ experiences are examined so that they can be supported during COVID-19 and other global pandemics.

Daphne Cockwell School of Nursing (DCSN) professor, Jennifer Lapum, aims to look into that. “How are nurses emotionally and psychologically affected by working in COVID-19 acute care hospital environments? What strategies are being used that promote resiliency in the face of these challenging work environments?” Lapum asks. Lapum and her research team note that we can better design tailored interventions to support nurses by first understanding their emotional and psychological responses to working in these complex and demanding areas of care.

Lapum is working with DCSN’s Suzanne Fredericks. They are collaborating with Julie McShane, external link, senior professional practice leader and Sannie Lai, external link, clinical manager, at the Toronto General Hospital site of the University Health Network.

Food safety behaviours of Canadians during the COVID-19 pandemic

Food safety has a significant impact on public health and on our healthcare system. An estimated 4 million Canadians become ill each year due to food-borne illnesses, and many of these illnesses likely result from the mishandling of food in people’s homes. “By looking at how Canadians are handling food and practicing hand hygiene during a crisis, we hope to get a better understanding of the reasons why consumers might engage in unsafe behaviours at home,” says Ian Young, professor at the School of Occupational and Public Health.

Internet-generated solutions are being widely spread, but many are not effective and can actually pose health risks, such as washing produce with soap. “The COVID-19 crisis presents an opportunity to investigate these safety myths among Canadians, which can inform current and future health communication strategies,” says Young. Further, reports of consumers stockpiling food raise concerns about adequate storage for perishable products like meat and poultry. Similar panic buying trends have been documented in other emergencies, like during a 2015 snowstorm in New York where power outages affected the ability to keep food safe. “With each crisis event, we can learn how to more effectively communicate food safety strategies so we can lower the risk for Canadians.”

Also involved in this project are Fatih Sekercioglu and Richard Meldrum, both from the School of Occupational and Public Health.

Supporting trans youth across sectors

COVID-19 is stressing our existing social services and compounding challenges for marginalized people who already face barriers to accessing public services. Julie James, a professor at the School of Child and Youth Care, will work with five young trans, gender diverse, and/or gender non-conforming young people who are leading the project, to examine the healthcare, education, and social service experiences and needs of trans, Two-Spirit, gender diverse, and/or gender non-conforming people in the context of the pandemic.

The research team will begin by identifying which gender affirmative healthcare services (surgeries, hormone therapy, etc.) have been cancelled, postponed, or halted and the effects of those interruptions. The research team will also examine the effects of online education delivery, the loss of in-person community and social services, and how young people are connecting online to provide personal support to each other.

Healthcare and community service providers are also stakeholders with needs in this process. “We hope that we will be able to identify how policies and practices are being shaped or modified because of COVID-19 and perhaps make recommendations in support of trans, Two-Spirit, gender non-conforming, and/or gender diverse young people and the healthcare and social service workers who aim to support them,” says James. A central focus of the study is to understand what, if any, specific needs or supports are being considered for Indigenous, racialized, and/or youth with disabilities.

“Many services may be offered remotely, but we will see if this creates safe spaces for trans and gender diverse young people, or if this further restricts access and isolates them in potentially unsafe places,” says James. Results will be posted, and updated regularly as new data comes in starting, May 30, 2020 on www.transyouthcanada.com, external link.

Supporting mental health resilience among front-line healthcare providers enrolled in university programs during COVID-19

With a background in using online tools to respond to health crises, Daphne Cockwell School of Nursing (DCSN) professor, Joyal Miranda, aims to support mental health resilience among front-line healthcare providers enrolled in university programs during COVID-19. “Front-line registered healthcare providers currently enrolled in university programs to advance their skills and careers are expressing higher levels of stress, anxiety, fatigue, and insomnia than the general student population during COVID-19,” says Miranda.

Over 20,000 healthcare workers in Ontario are currently enrolled in some form of advanced post-secondary education. This cohort of students are facing a number of challenges, including limited PPE, new workplace settings and protocols, overtime, and higher patient ratios. Factor in additional stress from academic assignments and exams, and these healthcare workers' mental health resilience is certainly being tested. “We want to develop a mental-health focused online tool that will provide access to resources tailored to those needs,” states Miranda.

Working with Miranda are DCSN’s Elaine Santa Mina, Elizabeth McCay, Souraya Sidani, Don Rose, Sepali Guruge, Lori Schindel Martin, Suzanne Fredericks as well as Linda Lui of the University Health Network. 

Communication and physical/social distancing: Using mind genomics cartography to inform and drive social policy

Nick Bellissimo, professor in the School of Nutrition, is taking an international approach to explore how members of the public are responding to public health recommendations about physical distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We have little knowledge regarding the population's thoughts around the situation, implementation practices, and communication strategies regarding physical distancing,” says Bellissimo. “There are still misconceptions and often a lack of compliance.”

Bellissimo will apply an emerging science—Mind Genomics—to these questions. Using methods rooted in statistics, market research, and experimental psychology, Bellissimo will examine voluntary compliance behavior and how to optimize this through targeted messaging. His objective is to use consumer research tools that drive purchase decisions to motivate and drive changes in social behaviour, and to map these results. By mapping population ‘mindsets’ surrounding physical distancing, the research team will produce information that can help local authorities adjust messaging to improve compliance to recommendations during the current and expected second wave of the COVID-19 virus worldwide.

Bellissimo will explore mindsets and solutions in Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, Israel, Palestine, India, and Germany. This follows work he has already done in Canada and the United States. 

Bellissimo is working with Howard R. Moskowitz, external link, creator of Mind Genomics. 

To learn more about this project, read the Office of the Vice President, Research and Innovation’s article “Researchers propose way of improving communication around physical distancing” that was originally published on April 15, 2020.

Exploring the intersection between academic and professional work expectations for undergraduate post-diploma and graduate nursing students during the COVID-19 pandemic

Professional nurses hold registration in their respective professional bodies that allow them to carry out particular tasks according to their education. A significant portion of all nurses’ education includes practical experience in the field designed to prepare them for various realities they may face. Pandemics create a real-life, real-time learning opportunity, where both nursing students and teaching faculty can expand and enhance their nursing and teaching skills.

Sherry Espin, a professor in the Daphne Cockwell School of Nursing, hopes to make the most of the teaching reality that has presented itself in the COVID-19 crisis. There are many questions around what is asked of nurses, what they are obliged to do when caring for patients, and how they can balance their responsibilities to their governing bodies, employers, and families. “Examining this reality can be a cornerstone in looking to the future of nursing education,” says Espin. “These results can inform new educational programs, how courses may be offered in the future, including virtual teaching and learning, curriculum redesign, and academic policies for this unique population of students who are also frontline practitioners during a global pandemic crisis.”

Espin is working with DCSN’s Karen LeGrow, Don Rose, Sue Bookey-Bassett and Elaine Santa Mina. They are collaborating with community partner Taylor MacLean of the Centre for Communicating Knowledge.