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Confronting COVID-19

Provost's update on 2021 winter term

Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic) Mark Green shares an update about academic planning for first-year undergraduate students.

As some of Queen’s incoming students are making decisions about their residence offers, several faculties and schools have worked to finalize their plans for first-year undergraduate programs in the 2021 winter term.

In developing their plans, the faculties and schools followed the following principles:

  • Supporting academic excellence and academic integrity in all courses, programs, and degrees
  • Promoting and protecting equity, diversity, inclusivity, and Indigeneity in all aspects of the educational experience
  • Providing equitable access to educational materials for all students
  • Ensuring that the individual academic accommodation needs of students are met
  • Seeking cooperation between different units and faculties, and being mindful that a decision made in one part of the institution will have consequences elsewhere
  • Supporting the progression and retention of students through academic program requirements

The faculty and school proposals were reviewed by the Academic Operations Group and the Senior Leadership Team. All plans are in alignment with current Public Health guidelines; however, these plans may change as requirements evolve between now and January.

With some exceptions, most first-year lectures will be delivered remotely. Other on-campus academic activities will vary somewhat across programs. The decision to hold some academic activities on-campus was determined based on the need for students to access specialized facilities, such as labs, and to ensure all students can progress in their studies and meet the academic requirements of their programs.

Regardless of the course delivery format, the university is committed to ensuring all students receive an equitable and robust learning experience. Programs and services to support academic success continue to be available to all students, including academic advising, library services, and wellness support.

Information on residence operations for the 2021 winter term will be available in early fall, and plans for upper-year students are in development. We appreciate your patience as we take the time to ensure our planning aligns with Public Health guidelines.

Detailed information on winter term academic programming for first-year students will be shared with students directly by their faculty, once their plans are finalized. 

- Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic) Mark Green

Aging, long-term care, and COVID-19

Dean Jane Philpott and members of the Queen’s community discuss the lessons learned about senior care during the pandemic with the second installment of the Conversations Confronting COVID-19 series

Watch the discussion

Lessons learned during COVID-19

Queen’s had a record turnout as more than 800 viewers tuned in to last week’s Conversations Confronting COVID-19 virtual event on the topic of aging. Moderated by Dr. Jane Philpott, Dean of Health Sciences, the event brought together experts in healthcare, research, and policy-making to discuss lessons learned about Canada’s elderly population and long-term care during the coronavirus pandemic. The panel included Laura Tamblyn Watts, ArtSci’94, CEO of CanAge, Dr. John Puxty (Medicine), Dr. Catherine Donnelly (Rehabilitation Therapy), and Dr. Kevin Woo (Nursing and Rehabilitation Therapy).

While the event focused on the response to COVID-19, the participants brought unique research and policy perspectives to senior care issues and the challenges Ontario and Canada may face moving forward post-pandemic. The panelists, including Dr. Philpott, spoke from their experiences and specific expertise, having pivoted their research and attention to focus on COVID-19 related issues or joined the frontlines to deliver senior care during the crisis.

Major discussion topics included what the response to the pandemic has taught us about our emergency preparedness, our success rate in safeguarding vulnerable members of our society, and how COVID-19 will influence Canada’s long-term strategy for healthy aging. The panelists looked at diverse senior care models in Canada ranging from long-term care to retirement homes and aging at home or alternative non-institutional settings and their responses to COVID-19, along with guidance for those navigating these systems. In particular, they described the mental and physical effects of social isolation for both seniors and their family members and their current research to address this crucial issue.

In response to some of the 100+ questions posed by audience members, the experts reflected on the impact of COVID-19 within BIPOC communities and where policy and collaborative research are needed to support fair overall healthy aging for all Canadians. Throughout the conversation, the panelists also examined opportunities for a pan-Canadian approach to long-term care, integrating care and care teams where possible, investing in education and the workforce, and applying best practices from other provinces and countries for sector innovation.

Guidance and resources for senior care

Many viewers also asked insightful questions around policies, as well as shared personal experiences for guidance on matters such as supporting family caregivers. While the panelists could not respond to each question within the hour, they have provided a list of resources ranging from information about senior care programs and policy actions to ways for the community to get involved through the Queen’s Community Connections Project.

Additional Information

Conversations Confronting COVID-19

Queen’s University Relations and Advancement offices are currently planning additional events in the Conversations Confronting COVID-19 series for the fall. To learn more about upcoming alumni events, visit the Queen’s Alumni website, and for more information about how Queen’s researchers are combatting COVID-19 explore the Research@Queen’s website.

Tracking the pandemic in Ontario's ERs

Queen’s University researcher Steven Brooks receives $1.2 million in funding to build a provincial database to track COVID-19 patients.

Emergency departments are on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic, and there is a lack of high-quality clinical data to guide best practices and optimize outcomes. 

Queen’s University researcher Steven Brooks has been awarded $1.2 million through the Ontario COVID-19 Rapid Research Fund for his project that will develop a provincial registry of suspected and confirmed COVID-19 patients in emergency departments across Ontario. 

“There is an urgent need for high-quality data from suspected and confirmed COVID-19 patients managed in Ontario emergency departments to support better decisions, improve care, flatten the COVID-19 curve and support better preparedness for future pandemics,” says Dr. Brooks (Emergency Medicine, clinician-scientist Kingston Health Sciences Centre). 

Data to be collected includes details about each patient’s demographic information, health status, COVID-19 testing resultssymptoms and signs that prompted their emergency visit, testing and treatment in the emergency department, in-hospital treatment and course (e.g. whether they required life support and intensive care), as well as outcomes during their hospital visit (e.g. survival).  

The registry will support the development of clinical decision rules for patient screening, diagnostic studies (e.g. swabs and imaging), therapeutics (e.g. intubation) and disposition (e.g. admission to ICU, discharge home). 

The research team will also be following up with patients captured in the database by telephone at 30 days, 90 days, six months, and one year to measure survival and quality of life. 

In addition, the registry can potentially serve as the foundation for several other studies. For instance, Dr. Brooks is in preliminary talks with partners at Kingston Health Sciences Centre to plan a study that involves testing the blood of patients in the registry to understand how COVID-19 antibodies affect disease presentation and severity. He is also working with several provincial and national administrative data repositories (e.g. Canadian Institute for Health Information, Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences) to ensure that de-identified data captured in the registry can later be linked with administrative health data to understand how COVID-19 might impact health services use. 

The Ontario study is a component of a larger national network – The Canadian COVID-19 Emergency Department Research Network – led by Corinne Hohl out of the University of British Columbia.  There are 50 emergency departments across Canada participating and the team is also reaching out to international emergency department networks to establish the possibility of collaboration. 

One of the objectives of our registry is to contribute to the global knowledge base on the problem,” says Dr. Brooks. 

For more about the funding, visit the website. 

Is DNA key to whether you get COVID-19?

Queen’s researcher leads Canadian arm of international project aiming to sequence the genomes of 100,000 COVID-19 patients to better understand their genes and the disease.

Artist's concept of DNA strands
New evidence may suggest more men get coronavirus than women has motivated an international hunt for which genes make people especially vulnerable or resistant to COVID-19. (Shutterstock)

The strength and health of one’s immune system is one key indicator of susceptibility to contracting pathogens, including the novel coronavirus. However, new evidence that may suggest more men get coronavirus than women has motivated an international hunt for which genes make people especially vulnerable or resistant to COVID-19.

Canada, in partnership with teams in the United Kingdom and the United States, hopes to contribute the fully decoded genomes of 10,000 COVID-19 patients to better understand the genes behind the disease – part of a global mission that’s aiming for 100,000 genomes. With support from the SEAMO (Southeastern Ontario Academic Medical Organization), the Canadian arm of the project is being coordinated by David Maslove, Clinician Scientist with the Department of Medicine and Critical Care Program at Queen’s and intensive care doctor at Kingston Health Sciences Centre.

Dr. Maslove spoke to the Queen's Gazette about the potential links between DNA and coronavirus as well as the international project underway.

What is the suspected connection between DNA and coronavirus susceptibility?                                              

Previous studies have shown that susceptibility to infection may be, at least in part, genetically determined. For instance, large-scale, epidemiological studies show that likelihood of dying from an infection is at least five times more heritable than the likelihood of dying from cancer, even though we typically think of the latter, rather than the former, as a genetically determined condition.

The genes that control the immune system are some of the most diverse among humans, and lab studies have shown how different molecular characteristics influence the way in which people respond to infection. With respect to coronavirus in particular, early studies have identified some risk factors, such as age, hypertension, and diabetes, but these don’t appear to tell the whole story. Additional variability is seen in who gets a mild case, and who develops critical illness, with reason to suspect that some of that variability is determined by our genetics. 

Are there specific genes that make people more likely to be infected by coronavirus?

Early studies are beginning to shed some light on this, though the results remain preliminary. A European research group found associations between genes involved in determining blood type and the need for breathing support in COVID-19. Other groups have proposed that differences in the genetic regulation of ACE2 – a protein that the virus uses to gain entry into cells – may be associated with different outcomes for coronavirus patients. Others are looking to see if genetic differences in sex chromosomes (X and Y) may in part explain why early reports showed worse outcomes among males as compared to females. 

Drs. David Maslove and Michael Rauh
Drs. David Maslove and Michael Rauh have received funding from SEAMO to coordinate the Canadian arm of the GenOMICC study.

Are the reports that COVID-19 is more dangerous for men true?

Reports from some areas that have been hardest hit do suggest a higher mortality rate among men. Others are a little more equivocal. The reasons for these differences remain unclear. Genetics may play a role, since biological sex is genetically determined, though other factors may be important as well. 

If you can pinpoint the genes, will it lead to more treatment options?

This is our hope. Identifying specific genes means identifying the molecular pathways they influence. The hope is that these will yield important insights into how the coronavirus infects our cells, and how the body responds. This could lead to treatments that make susceptible people react more like those who are resistant to severe infection.

Can you tell me about the objectives of the GenOMICC study, the international initiative to fully decode the genomes of 100,000 COVID-19 patients? What is Canada’s contribution to this project?

Pinpointing the genetic determinants of COVID-19 will require sequencing the genomes of a great many patients – likely tens of thousands. There are large-scale coordinated efforts going on internationally to try to harmonize studies and get to these large sample sizes as quickly as possible. We at Queen’s are collaborating with researchers in the UK who have already sequenced genomes from about 2,500 patients there, through a research program called GenOMICC. Here at Queen’s, Dr. Michael Rauh and I have received funding from SEAMO to coordinate the Canadian arm of the GenOMICC study. We are also coordinating our efforts with a Canadian consortium that has benefited from federal funding to be used for this purpose. Canada has a key role to play because of our expertise in genomics, as well as a longstanding and internationally renowned track record of collaborative critical care research. 

Principal’s online town hall available online

A video recording of the online town hall with Principal Patrick Deane on Wednesday, July 22, is now available online, so that Queen’s community members have another chance to watch the event.

Principal Deane answered questions from the community with the support of other senior leadership team members including Provost Mark Green, Vice-Principal (Research) Kimberly Woodhouse, Vice-Principal (Finance and Administration) Donna Janiec and Dean, Faculty of Health Sciences Jane Philpott, while Stephanie Simpson, Associate Vice-Principal (Human Rights, Equity & Inclusion), was the host/moderator, and Kanonhsyonne Janice Hill, Associate Vice-Principal (Indigenous Initiatives and Reconciliation), Office of Indigenous Initiatives, provided a welcome and closing.

Queen’s makes face masks mandatory in all public areas of campus

To help reduce the potential spread of COVID-19, all individuals in indoor public or common spaces at Queen’s will be required to wear a face covering starting July 24. This includes lobbies, hallways, stairwells, restrooms, elevators, and other areas that are shared with others.

Examples of where face coverings are not required include:

  • while working alone in one’s own (non-public/non-student) work area/office/lab/research space
  • while working behind plexiglass servicing people and where a physical distancing of at least 2m can be maintained
  • when eating or drinking (with 2m physical distancing being maintained)

Exemptions are provided for people with underlying medical conditions that inhibit their ability to wear masks as noted by KFL&A Public Health. It should also be noted that face coverings do not replace required job-specific Personal Protective Equipment, such as medical/procedure masks, face shields or respirators. Also, the use of reusable cloth face masks may not be suitable in certain environments (i.e. chemical, radiological, biological labs). In these instances, disposable masks, appropriate to the hazard, need to be considered if physical distancing cannot be maintained.

In addition to wearing a face mask, it’s important everyone continues to carry out a range of health and safety actions, including physical distancing where possible, frequent hand-washing, using hand sanitizer, avoiding touching your face, disinfecting high-touch surfaces, and self-monitoring for COVID-19 symptoms. More information on measures in place at Queen’s is also available on the university’s COVID-19 website.

Please refer to guidelines for current information on who is currently allowed to be attending the Queen’s campus.

Information on face mask distribution

To support this important safety measure, Queen’s has purchased two cloth face masks for each employee. These masks will be distributed to employees as they are permitted to return to campus as part of a phased return to regular operations.

Cloth masks can be picked up by Queen’s employees at the Queen’s Postal & Print Services (QPPS) office in Fleming Hall, Jemmett Wing, Room 001. Employees are reminded to practice physical distancing when entering the building. As this wing is not considered accessible, if you need assistance please contact QPPS at (613) 533-6305 and your items will be delivered curbside to your vehicle.

We ask that only those authorized to be on campus pick up their cloth masks. Strategic Procurement Services will work with Faculties and departments on a broader distribution plan as campus operations are approved to resume.

Cloth masks will be made available to students who are required to be on campus and a process for distribution is currently being determined.

Individuals can also use their own masks or face covering.

Life-saving labels

New software developed at Queen’s University helps reduce human error in data collection and management, including for COVID-19 testing.

How many times have you struggled to interpret messy handwriting or a label on a meal deep in your freezer? It can be a frustrating occurrence.

However, when labeling challenges occur in a laboratory, the consequences can be much more severe. The concern has never been greater with the onset of COVID-19, where misidentified labels could have life-changing outcomes.

A team of researchers within the Department of Biology at Queen’s, including Drs. Robert Colautti, Virginia Walker, Stephen Lougheed and Master’s student Yihan Wu have developed a new, flexible research software program that aims to make sample management more reproducible and less prone to human error.

The program is called baRcodeR. This is how it works: Scientists who work with biological samples might record additional information including date, location, measurements, test results, and other observations. Large collaborative projects, like those tracking COVID-19, can require samples and data to be coordinated among hundreds or even thousands of scientists and students working collaboratively from around the world.

“There are a lot of computational tools in the field of ‘data science’ that allow for reproducible workflows, but these focus on data after it is collected,” says Dr. Colautti, Canada Research Chair in Rapid Evolution. “Our program applies these principles to sample labeling and management. Accurate data collection and sample management are crucial to reliable analysis.”

The development of the software came as the result of three large international research projects by the collaborators.

“All three of us (Drs. Walker, Lougheed and Colautti) were each involved in different, large international collaborative research projects, where data collection and data management were becoming a big issue," says Dr. Colautti. These projects included the Global Garlic Mustard Field SurveyTSFN, a project on sustainable fisheries in Canada’s North, and Bearwatch, a polar bear project. “When discussing these very different projects, we realized there was a common set of problems with sample collection and labeling that we couldn’t address with off-the-shelf software.”

Any error with labeling or data management can have serious consequences. For example, according to Dr. Colautti, a mere one per cent labeling error in the more than 80 million COVID-19 tests conducted worldwide could yield hundreds of thousands of misdiagnoses, including tens of thousands of infected patients erroneously cleared to return to work and regular activity. Human errors at this scale are inevitable, particularly for frontline workers who face the mental challenges that come with working long hours under difficult conditions.

The researchers hope that baRcodeR can help remedy some of these issues and, so far, the free, open-access software has been downloaded over 13,000 times and is already being used south of the border.

“baRcodeR is very much in daily use in our ongoing efforts to conduct COVID-19 research in populations of first responders, frontline health care workers, frontline city workers like bus drivers, and a population of local school children and their families” says Chris Barnes, Director of Clinical and Translational Science Informatics and Technology at the University of Florida.

The article “baRcodeR: An open-source R package for sample labeling” appeared in the June 23 issue of Methods in Ecology and Evolution. The software is available through the Comprehensive R Archine Network (CRAN) and the Colautti Lab website.

Joining forces for innovative technology solutions to COVID-19

Queen’s researchers are partnering with industry to transform decision-making and healthcare through two Digital Technology Supercluster projects

[Logo: Digital Technology Superclusters]

 

In response to COVID-19 many Queen’s researchers have been building on their industry partnerships to help rapidly pivot and mobilize their research to address some of the many complex problems posed by the pandemic. Many collaborations have been formed to help not only respond to immediate issues, but to also look to the future as we assess the crisis’s impact throughout society.

Digital Technology Supercluster

What is the Supercluster Initiative?
Announced in 2017 by Minister Navdeep Bains, superclusters are high-tech collaborations led by industry with academic institutions, not-for-profit organizations, and companies of all sizes working together to spur innovation and job creation around certain broad themes. Supported by a $950 million federal investment and located across Canada, five superclusters have been created to support advancements for oceans, AI, advanced manufacturing, protein industries, and digital technology. Learn more.

Two such projects that include partnerships with Queen’s, focused on predictive modelling and cancer testing and treatment, have received more than $4 million in funding through the Digital Technology Supercluster’s COVID-19 program. Part of the federal government’s Innovation Superclusters Initiative, the Digital Technology Supercluster fosters collaborations in healthcare, communications, natural resources, and transportation to support ambitious, solutions-oriented technology development projects that position Canada as a digital innovation leader. In response to COVID-19, the Supercluster developed a specific program with $60 million in funding to address digital transformation in the Canadian healthcare system. Both funded projects in which Queen’s is involved address the urgent needs to combat COVID-19, while also establishing infrastructure for future sector innovations.

Innovating the response to COVID-19

The Looking Glass: Protecting Canadians in a Return to Community project led by Kings Distributed Systems (KDS) will use predictive modelling to build a platform that will help decision-makers determine the impact that a proposed policy will have on public health and the economy. In addition to Queen’s researchers Troy Day and Felicia Magpantay (Mathematics), who will contribute leading epidemiological models, several of the project’s industry partners have participated in programs and received services from Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation (QPI). Through the formation of this project and past opportunities, QPI has supported some of the affiliated industry partners, such as Limestone Analytics, led by Queen’s professor Bahman Kashi (Economics), and the project lead, KDS, with mentorship, incubation space, and/or connections to resources, including the facilitation of a pilot project with Queen’s Centre for Advanced Computing, and receptors such as the Eastern Ontario Leadership Council and the Greater Kingston Chamber of Commerce. Additionally, industry partner aiSight through its founder Keyana Yeatman, ArtSci’20, has received support via the QPI WE-CAN Project and participated in the DDQIC QICSI program. With partners and contributors from a range of institutions and industry across Canada, this diverse collaboration will develop Looking Glass into a powerful tool to forecast not only COVID-19 infection rates from actions such as re-opening schools, but also other critical public health issues like vaccination campaigns and managing tick-borne diseases.

Project ACTT – Access to Cancer Testing & Treatment in Response to COVID-19 led by Canexia Health is focused on expanding access to minimally-invasive biopsies for patients with metastatic lung, breast, or colorectal cancer in response to surgery backlogs resulting from COVID-19. Principal Investigator for the project is Queen’s researcher Harriet Feilotter (Pathology and Molecular Medicine) and member of the Division of Cancer Biology and Genetics at Queen’s Cancer Research Institute. By testing circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA) with technology that includes machine learning and AI for analysis, Project ACTT will detect fragments of cancer tumour DNA from just a patient blood sample. This project will also enable detection of a broader range of cancer types, along with targeted treatment matching, and almost double the reach of Canadian cancer patients each year. Not only is this new rapid test a less invasive method than surgical tissue biopsies, it also provides a remote delivery solution for cancer biopsies that minimizes exposure to COVID-19 in hospitals for high-risk individuals. As the project develops, they hope to make it possible to conduct these biopsies more efficiently within Canadian hospitals and labs and provide solutions for cancer testing in rural and remote areas.

"The Superclusters initiative demonstrates what we can do when we harness the collective strengths of industry, academia, and research," says Kimberly Woodhouse, Vice-Principal (Research). "Queen’s is a key partner in helping to grow these companies and collaborations, in the case of the Looking Glass project in particular, and providing vital expertise that will help in our national efforts to combat COVID-19 through strength in digital technology."

For more information on these and other COVID-19 Program projects, visit the Digital Technology Supercluster website. In addition, to learn more about how Queen’s researchers are combating COVID-19, explore the Confronting COVID-19 series.

Online town hall with Principal Patrick Deane for faculty and staff on July 22

Join Principal Patrick Deane in an online town hall for Queen's faculty and staff on July 22 10-11:30 am where he will answer questions about the current COVID-19 situation and our plans for the future. Stephanie Simpson, Associate Vice-Principal (Human Rights, Equity & Inclusion) will be the host/moderator.

Submit your question in advance and it may be answered live during the town hall. This event will also be recorded and shared on the Principal's website. 

Join the event here. You may be prompted to enter your Queen's Net ID.

Protecting cancer patients from COVID-19

A world-first clinical trial test designed at Queen’s launches a novel immune-boosting strategy.

Canadian researchers collaborating with the Canadian Cancer Trials Group at Queen’s University have launched an innovative clinical trial focused on strengthening the immune system against COVID-19. The trial focuses on one of the most vulnerable populations – cancer patients.  

The experiment involves IMM-101, a preparation of safe, heat-killed bacteria that broadly stimulates the innate, or “first-response,” arm of the immune system. The researchers hope that boosting cancer patients’ immune systems with IMM-101 will protect them from developing severe COVID-19 and other dangerous lung infections. 

"We know the immune systems of cancer patients are compromised both by their disease and the treatments they receive placing them at much higher risk of severe complications from COVID-19,” says Dr. Chris O’Callaghan,  Senior Investigator at The Canadian Cancer Trials Group and Professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences.  “These patients are unable to practice social isolation due to the need to regularly attend hospital to receive critically important cancer treatment.”

Researchers from The Ottawa Hospital came up with the idea for the trial and worked with the Canadian Cancer Trials Group (CCTG) at Queen’s University to design and run it in centres across the country. Funding and in-kind support, valued at $2.8 million, is being provided by the Canadian Cancer Society, BioCanRx, the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, The Ottawa Hospital Foundation, The Ottawa Hospital Academic Medical Organization, ATGen Canada/NKMax, and Immodulon Therapeutics, the manufacturer of IMM-101. 

In the race to find new ways to prevent and treat COVID-19, this comes as encouraging news. “An effective vaccine that provides specific protection against COVID-19 could take another year or more to develop, test, and implement,” says Dr. Rebecca Auer, study lead, surgical oncologist, and Director of Cancer Research at The Ottawa Hospital and Associate Professor at the University of Ottawa. “In the meantime, there is an urgent need to protect people with cancer from severe COVID-19 infection, and we think this immune stimulator, IMM-101, may be able to do this.”

The trial, called CCTG IC.8, has been approved by Health Canada and is expected to open at cancer centres across Canada this summer. People who are interested in participating should speak with their cancer specialist.  

 

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