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Helping leaders make public health decisions during COVID-19

Queen’s researcher Dongmei Chen and collaborators receive federal funding to explore how the social dynamics of coronavirus transmission impact decision making.

[Photo of Toronto skyline featuring the CN Tower]
Queen's researcher Dongmei Chen and her collaborators are examining the social dynamics of COVID-19 transmission. They are collaborating with community partners in Toronto to examine the epidemic's impact on the Chinese community in the Greater Toronto Area. (Image: Unsplash/ Richard Kidger)

As governments and public health agencies move to rapidly address the COVID-19 pandemic, they face the challenge of making decisions under considerable time constraints and with uncertainty. Developing evidence-based responses will be a key tool, now and for the future, for leaders to make confident decisions on assessing preventive measures, allocating resources and equipment, identifying high-risk groups, and establishing policies on emergency response.

Social dynamics of virus transmission

[Photo of Dr. Dongmei Chen]
Dr. Dongmei Chen (Geography and Planning)

Queen’s researcher Dongmei Chen (Geography and Planning) is working on a project that will help decision-makers access vital information they need for their public health response to COVID-19 and future infectious disease pandemics. Dr. Chen, along with researchers Lu Wang (nominated PI) and Lixia Yang from Ryerson University, have received support from the Government of Canada’s rapid research funding competition to address COVID-19. The Canadian Institutes for Health Research has awarded their project more than $180,000 to study the social dynamics of virus transmission in a large urban hub to help us better understand the impact of our public health response. 

How the social dynamics of coronavirus transmission impact a community are largely shaped by the relationship between community prevention behaviour and individual activity space.

“The effectiveness of preventive measures depends fundamentally on the public’s willingness to cooperate, which is highly associated with the level of risk a person perceives,” explains Dr. Chen. “Because COVID-19 typically spreads via close contact, it is of critical importance to understand, at an individual level, the characteristics of activity space for individuals during an outbreak or a potential outbreak.”

Collaborating with community partners in Toronto

Their project will also explore the importance of how risk perceptions and the specific measures taken in a community can be tailored to the unique circumstances of a transnational community. Specifically, Dr. Chen and her collaborators will examine the epidemic’s impact on the Chinese community in Toronto.

At the time of the proposal in February, the majority of cases in Canada could be traced to travel from China. As the Greater Toronto Area is home to the largest Chinese diaspora outside of China, Dr. Chen and her collaborators believed that the impact of the outbreak would be large for this community because of their many connections to mainland China and Hong Kong. The team, whose research expertise range from transnational healthcare to health among immigrant populations and spatial modelling, will work with three Chinese community organizations and health centres in Toronto to provide new insights on the cultural dimensions of the epidemic and the implications of pandemics within large global cities.

Future emergency responses

Dr. Chen’s expertise in understanding and modelling the interactions between human activities and their physical environment will be key to analyzing the data collected from the team’s community partnerships. Under Dr. Chen’s leadership, Queen’s LaGISA (Laboratory of Geographic Information and Spatial Analysis) will conduct the project’s spatial analysis, geovisualization and modelling of individual activity spaces before and during the pandemic, and help to interpret their implication in COVID-19 prevention and transmission.

Their project will not only be crucial to the current public health response to COVID-19, it will have long-lasting implications. “Such evidence-based findings can be utilized by public health, locally and internationally, in assessing community preventive measures and enhancing the collective capacity for emergency responses to COVID-19, along with other future infectious diseases,” explains Dr. Chen.