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Confronting COVID-19

Queen’s summer camps cancelled for COVID-19 safety

Given the current public health environment and challenges presented by physical distancing, Queen’s University has made the difficult decision to cancel all in-person youth camps normally delivered throughout the summer.

“We understand that this is disappointing news for campers and their parents,” says Donna Janiec, Vice-Principal (Finance and Administration). “The impacts and restrictions imposed on our community as we respond to the COVID-19 situation continues to be hard on everyone, and it’s been especially tough on families with young children.”

The health and safety of campers and camp staff is the university’s top priority. Based on its most current public health guidance, and given the indefinite nature of the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic, the decision was made not to run any in-person camps this summer. Physical distancing requirements will likely remain in place through to the end of the summer.

The university notes any registration fees paid will be refunded; parents should consult their specific camp website or administrator for details. A few camps are exploring options for online summer camp programming, but these are still in development.

Students that are unemployed as a result of this decision may be eligible for one of several federal COVID-19 emergency benefits programs. Impacted students are welcome to contact the Student Awards Office if they have questions.

The university knows that the camp experience is an important one for children and counsellors. Queen’s camps have been a popular tradition in Kingston for years, and the university looks forward to maintaining that tradition once it is safe to do so. Information on the variety of Queen’s camps can be found online.

Principal Patrick Deane shares details of Fall 2020 planning

Senior leadership meets with hundreds of faculty and staff online to talk about the coming year.

Principal Patrick Deane held a virtual town hall for Queen’s faculty and staff to discuss ongoing planning for the Fall 2020 term. Joining the Principal were Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic) Mark Green, Vice-Principal (Finance and Operations) Donna Janiec, Vice-Principal (Research) Kim Woodhouse, and Special Advisor on COVID-19 David Walker. Together, they shared their thoughts on how the university will be responding to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, and answered question on topics ranging from autumn program delivery methods and research, to health and safety and employee supports.

Stephanie Simpson, Associate Vice-Principal (Human Rights, Equity, and Inclusion), hosted the discussion, following a welcome and introduction from Janice Hill (Kanonysyonne), Associate Vice-Principal (Indigenous Initiatives and Reconciliation).

“The strength of our institution depends on the health, happiness, and prosperity of everyone in it,” said Principal Deane during his opening remarks to over 1,300 employees who joined in the virtual gathering. “In the shadow of a global health crisis like this we all feel vulnerable, so any opportunity for certainty gives us consolation. Our community of staff, faculty, and students has showed remarkable resilience, patience, and dedication as the university continues to respond to this complex global health crisis, and while we continue to move forward senior leadership will be doing all that we can to provide further clarity and support.”

Principal Deane highlighted that the most pressing issue expressed by faculty and staff was preparation for the fall semester.

“The university is planning for a number of scenarios, and our primary concern remains the health and safety of our community,” he said. “Our hope, of course, is that operations will resume as normal, but this is not realistic. We will most likely see a phased-in approach to our return to campus, with many, if not most courses being delivered remotely.”

What will Fall term course delivery look like?

In planning for a variety of Fall term scenarios, university leadership is working closely with local and provincial government and public health authorities to look at how the institution can advance our educational and research mission while maintaining full support of the city’s management of the current health and economic challenges.

“It is becoming increasingly unlikely that public health circumstances will allow a return to normalcy by the fall,” says Provost Green. “While this does challenge the in-person experience for which we are renowned, I am confident that our spirit of innovation and collaboration will guarantee an outstanding fall semester for our students.”

Discussion of fall planning also extended to issues relating to faculty and staff, with questions posed to the speakers about employment outlook and an eventual return to the workplace.

“The university is about its community and, as we find ourselves in this situation, preserving that community has been of paramount importance to me and the senior leadership team,” says Principal Deane.

Employees who could work from home have been doing so for many weeks, and essential workers continue to do exceptional work on campus, however a small number of those whose jobs depended upon services that can no longer be provided in a remote workplace have been issued a temporary lay-off.

“We are seeing this as temporary and we expect to have all of our employees back to campus as soon as it is possible,” says Donna Janiec, Vice-Principal (Finance and Administration). “The planning for a phased-in return to operations is moving ahead and will incorporate measures to see the community back together as health and safety guidelines permit.”

The university continues to work with these employees to assist them in accessing federal relief programs, like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

Following evolving public health advice

In planning for a phased-in return to operations, the university is in close consultation with public health officials. Though the term will be largely remote for most students and many employees, certain programs in the Faculty of Health Sciences and a limited number of graduate research programs will be offered in person.  Some students will be on campus for these programs and others may choose to return to the city even if their studies are largely remote.

“So far, Queen’s and Kingston has done excellent work on prevention, which will now have to be amplified by our ability to monitor this situation as some students return in the fall,” says Dr. Walker. “We continue to work closely with public health officials on these plans and are looking at many strategies that will help mitigate risks, as faculty, staff, and students eventually transition back to campus.”

A video recording of the townhall session will be made available on the Principal’s website in the coming days. Those questions submitted but not answered during the live broadcast due to time constraints will be shared anonymously with senior leadership and be addressed as well.

More information on planning for Fall 2020 can also be found in an update on the Provost’s Office website.  

Connecting youth to the Queen’s experience

The Enrichment Studies Unit is linking elementary and secondary school students with resources that introduce them to university studies. 

Photo of a laptop, notebook, and pens.
The Enrichment Studies Unit has compiled over 100 online learning resources.

The month of May is usually a time when the campus is bustling with students from grades 5 to 12, spending a week at the university with the Enrichment Studies Unit (ESU). These students experience what university is like by taking classes and living in Queen’s residence. But due to COVID-19, ESU cannot bring students to Queen’s this spring. So instead, ESU has found ways to bring the Queen’s experience to them.

Reaching Higher is a new catalogue of more than 100 free online resources, compiled by staff who are Ontario-certified teachers, to help students and families easily access high-quality educational content on a variety of subjects. The academic areas range from pathology and engineering to languages and history, and include a wide array of engaging learning options, such as virtual tours of museums and labs, educational games, documentary films, and apps.

“This is a time when parents and students may be looking for educational activities that can help them make the most of their time at home,” says Morgan Davis, Manager, Enrichment Studies Unit. “There’s a lot of material out there, so we have curated what we think are some of the best resources available for free online. Through Reaching Higher, students will be able to get a sense of the subjects they can learn about at university.”

A number of the resources were developed by Queen’s staff and faculty. For example, participants interested in learning more about art can take a virtual tour of the Agnes Etherington Art Centre. Those looking to learn about engineering research can virtually explore some of the research facilities in Queen’s Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science. For those interested in Indigenous cultures, there are Indigenous teaching and learning resources developed by the Queen's Faculty of Education.

“We can’t completely recreate the Queen’s experience without bringing the students to campus, but we hope Reaching Higher provides students with a glimpse of how dynamic and exciting it can be to study at Queen’s,” says Davis.

The collection can also connect younger students to places around the world, at a time when many are spending most of their time at home. Some of the learning materials take students inside renowned institutions such as the Louvre, NASA’s Langley Research Center, and the Canadian Museum of History.

To learn more about the Enrichment Studies Unit and to explore the new Reaching Higher catalogue, visit their website.

Queen’s launches AI-enhanced tools for those affected by pandemic layoffs

MyOpenCourt, a project of the Conflict Analytics Lab at the Faculty of Law and Smith School of Business, helps out-of-work Canadians to understand their legal rights and options.

MyOpenCourt, a project of the Conflict Analytics Lab at the Faculty of Law and Smith School of Business,
MyOpenCourt currently features two free and simple-to-use web-based tools that harness artificial intelligence and data science technologies. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, millions of Canadians are out of work and facing uncertainty about returning. These circumstances can put workers, particularly those in ‘gig economy’ jobs, in situations where their legal rights are unclear. 

MyOpenCourt, a project of the Conflict Analytics Lab at Queen’s University’s Faculty of Law and Smith School of Business, will now help these workers understand their rights – and options. 

“Most Canadian workers cannot afford an employment lawyer, or live in areas with few skilled employment law experts,” says Samuel Dahan, Director of the Conflict Analytics Lab and a professor in the Faculty of Law with a cross-appointment to Smith. “Since COVID-19’s arrival in Canada, we have seen nearly 2 million jobs lost with terminations and layoffs across many different sectors, and decided to launch our tools to help Canadians who have lost work.”

MyOpenCourt currently features two free and simple-to-use web-based tools that harness artificial intelligence and data science technologies. Both are available at the project site at myopencourt.org

The “Am I an employee or contractor?” application can determine the likelihood that a work arrangement is an employment relationship or that of a contractor through a fast, anonymous questionnaire.

Workers who believe they have been wrongfully dismissed can use the “How much severance am I entitled to?” tool to calculate reasonable notice for dismissal.

“These tools are as valuable for employers as they are for workers,” Professor Dahan says. “Navigating employer-contractor relationships is challenging, and severance is difficult to calculate. We hope to provide both workers and employers with ways to avoid pitfalls and find equitable solutions to the challenges created by the pandemic.” 

Powerful AI technology lies behind both tools. Working from thousands of Canadian employment law cases, MyOpenCourt can make predictions that can offer guidance to workers in these uncertain situations. While these applications cannot take the place of a lawyer, they can help users understand if they have a case before contacting one.

Should a user discover they have a case, MyOpenCourt will automatically connect the user to a partner law firm at no cost. 

The MyOpenCourt tools have been developed by students and researchers at Queen’s Law, the Smith Master of Management in Artificial Intelligence, Queen’s Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, and partners like McGill University and institutions based in the U.S. and Europe. Professor Maxime Cohen of McGill and Professor Jonathan Touboul of Brandeis University provided data science expertise, helping to translate the case data into predictions.

“We are thrilled that the Conflict Analytics Lab has been able to launch this platform, at a time when these tools will be able to help many Canadians,” says Yuri Levin, Executive Director of the Analytics and AI ecosystem at Smith and an instrumental player in the creation of the Conflict Analytics Lab.

 MyOpenCourt reasonable notice calculator cannot currently be used to generate case outcomes for Québec-based users.

To learn more about the work of the Conflict Analytics Lab, visit conflictanalytics.queenslaw.ca

About Conflict Analytics Lab

The Conflict Analytics Lab (CAL) strives to build a fairer future by improving access to justice.

We are experts in applying artificial intelligence to help resolve conflicts in a transparent, consistent, and innovative manner all over the world.

Housed at Queen’s University, the CAL combines academics, technology experts, and the legal industry to revolutionize the way we approach conflicts and better serve those who cannot afford traditional justice. 

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.

More than food banks are needed during the coronavirus pandemic

The Conversation: The ability of food banks to meet the needs of food insecure Canadians has plummeted just when it is needed most.

People pack boxes at a foodbank
Many people who have never used food banks before have had to rely on them during the coronavirus pandemic.

COVID-19 is revealing critical weaknesses in how we care for each other. While many Canadians are being thrown out of work and need emergency food assistance, food banks have had to shut down operations to deal with physical distancing requirements, reduce staffing as elderly volunteers stay home to self-isolate and ration food as donations decline.

The feel-good vibes of food drives might suggest that if we all just pitch in a little bit more, food banks could meet their goal of feeding all hungry Canadians. But decades of evidence convincingly shows food banks have never remedied the inadequate or insecure access to food faced by Canadians, whether in booming economic times or faltering ones.

There are thousands of food banks and affiliated agencies in Canada. Businesses and individuals donate millions of dollars, millions of pounds of non-perishable food and millions of hours of volunteers’ labour.

Yet rates of food insecurity in Canada are shockingly high and rising. The latest statistics from 2017-18 estimate that more than 4.4 million Canadians and one in six households with children worried about what to eat or reduced the quality or quantity of food they ate because of lack of money.

These numbers are higher than ever and we have no idea how much higher food insecurity rates will climb in the next few months as the impact of the coronavirus pandemic continues.

Lack quantity and variety

Even before COVID-19, only about a quarter of those who meet the objective criteria of food insecurity ever went to a food bank. Many neighbourhoods don’t have an accessible food bank or one with convenient hours. Food banks seldom have the quantity or variety of foods that people need for dietary and health needs or because of religious or personal reasons.

And even when food bank staff or volunteers are kind and caring, the experience of going to a food bank is inherently stigmatizing. This means many would rather go hungry than accept charity.

Food banks are simply unable to address the core reason that too many people don’t have enough food — poverty. Nearly all food bank clients report experiencing severe food insecurity, which means skipping meals, losing weight or potentially going for entire days without eating.

Given all we know about the insufficiency of food banks, it’s distressing to see governments promoting them as a means to address food insecurity.

Shelves are filled with non-perishable food items.
Businesses and individuals donate millions of dollars, millions of pounds of non-perishable food and millions of hours of volunteers’ labour. 

Charity isn’t the solution

In late March, Premier François Legault told Québecers not to be ashamed to go to the food bank to get what they need. “It’s not your fault if you lost your job,” he said.

While this is true — no one should feel embarrassed for needing help — we should all be ashamed that government officials would point to food banks as the solution for deficiencies in government income supports.

The government of British Columbia then announced $3 million for the province’s struggling food banks “to help ensure that people continue to have access to the food they need.” And Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared the federal government would invest $100 million for food banks and similar organizations so that “vulnerable Canadians can get the food they need, when they need it most.”

Let’s be clear: food banks have never been where Canadians can get the food they need.

For almost 40 years, governments of all political stripes have called on food banks to address food needs instead of developing meaningful policy solutions to reduce poverty. During the coronavirus crisis, politicians have thrown the frayed rope of charity instead of a strong lifeline to a robust social safety net.

People need sufficient income

Contrary to what our politicians are telling us, food banks have never — and cannot — adequately address food insecurity. Struggling Canadians need sufficient income to feed themselves now and in the post-pandemic future.

If we are “all in this together,” as politicians keep reminding us, perhaps new food bank users will join food bank veterans and other Canadians to demand that our governments provide a real safety net. This would include a basic income that would allow all of us to meet the material necessities of life.

The best sign of a successful national response to the food insecurity crisis is that food banks will finally close after 40 years — not because of lack of food or physical distancing rules, but lack of demand.The Conversation

______________________________________________________________________

Elaine Power, Associate Professor in Health Studies, Queen's University; Jennifer Black, Associate Professor of Food, Nutrition and Health, University of British Columbia, and Jennifer Brady, Assistant Professor, Applied Human Nutrition, Mount Saint Vincent University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Ready for a productive summer online

Enrolments are surging in popular online summer courses at Queen’s.

Photo of a person using a laptop.
Faculties have been adding new courses to meet the high demand for summer online learning at Queen's University.

Demand has never been higher for online summer courses at Queen’s University.

As many students have had their summer plans disrupted by the pandemic, they are turning to online courses in large numbers. And there is still time to enroll in a wide variety of courses, including options in the humanities, education, engineering, and health sciences.

Across the university, most faculties are reporting large increases in their summer online programs over last year. Compared to May 2019, the Faculty of Arts and Science has seen enrolments for Arts and Science Online rise by 50 per cent. They currently have over 9,000 enrolments across their courses and are expecting more for the July start date.

“The pandemic has made it challenging for many students to pursue their original plans for the summer. With our long track record of delivering first-rate online education, we are well-positioned to increase our course offerings and expand enrolment to help ensure that students have options. The extremely high levels of enrolment we are seeing is thanks in large part to the strong reputation of our online programs. It is also due to the fact that our courses are for-credit and may be applied to a student’s degree, regardless of whether they are Queen’s students or students at other institutions who are taking our courses for transfer credits,” says Barbara Crow, Dean, Faculty of Arts and Science.

Increased demand for online courses across Queen’s

Arts and Science Online is not the only program seeing large spikes in enrolment. The Bachelor of Health Sciences (BHSc) has more than doubled its enrolment for summer online courses compared to last year. Currently, there are over 1,900 students enrolled in these classes. Recognizing the high demand, the BHSc has added six courses to its original set of offerings for the summer.

The Faculty of Law has raised the enrolment caps for some of their courses as well to respond to demand. Enrolments for Aboriginal Law have more than doubled compared to last year. And Introduction to Canadian Law has 210 students enrolled with a number of students on a waitlist, compared to 147 enrolments in 2019.

Over the last five years, the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science (FEAS) has seen sustained growth in its online summer courses. This summer that trend has accelerated. This spring term, FEAS has more than 775 enrolments in their online courses, which is more than 200 additional enrolments then they had in 2019.

Expanding course offerings in Education

Teachers and graduate students in education are also turning to Queen’s to develop their skills over the summer. The Faculty of Education has added courses to several different programs and seen unprecedented demand for all their offerings. They have added a new seven-week spring term to their Graduate Diploma in Professional Inquiry and Professional Master of Education programs. During this new term, they are offering nine courses, and all reached full enrolment shortly after registration opened.

The Faculty of Education also offers a number of Continuing Teacher Education (CTE) and Professional Studies courses. These have also seen strong surges in interest. Compared to their 2019 spring course enrollments, there are 1300 more students enrolled in Professional Studies and CTE courses this spring. One of the more popular courses this year is Teaching and Learning through e-Learning, which provides timely skills that can help teachers improve their remote instruction abilities.

Read more about how faculties are connecting students with online learning opportunities in this previous article in the Queen’s Gazette.

To learn more about summer online courses and enrolment, visit the faculty websites.

Chronicling COVID-19 for future researchers

The Queen’s Archives is compiling digital materials that document the pandemic’s impact on the university and the community.

Photo of the Queen's Archives
The Queen's Archives is using Archive-It to make an online record of COVID-19 that is open to anyone.

Stretching back 179 years, Queen’s past has been marked by the effects of Canadian Confederation, two world wars, the Spanish Flu of 1918, and many other historical events. But the current novel coronavirus pandemic is now creating a chapter unlike any other in its history.

That’s why the Queen’s University Archives is making sure that this moment is preserved for future generations. Working with area partners, the Archives is capturing digital records that tell the story of how COVID-19 has affected both the university and the broader Kingston area.

“In the future, people are going to want to know how the pandemic changed life in this region, and the only way they’ll be able to find out is if there is an archive they can turn to. By capturing as much information as we can, we’re going to make it possible to study how some of the larger institutions in the area responded to the virus and how the media covered what happened here,” says Jeremy Heil, Digital and Private Records Archivist at Queen’s.

Deciding what to record

Shortly after Queen’s transitioned to remote teaching and working arrangements, the Archives moved quickly to start keeping a record of this unprecedented time. They decided to focus their efforts first on collecting records of materials such as municipal decisions, public health information, and communications from the university. These materials are what future researchers would be able to use to reconstruct a timeline of how the early stages of the pandemic unfolded at Queen’s and in the region.

As part of their work, the Queen’s University Archives reached out to area partners to ensure that they would coordinate their efforts with the City of Kingston, Kingston Frontenac Public Library, KFL&A Public Health, and others. All these groups are now working together to make sure that they aren’t duplicating efforts and to ensure that all the most relevant material is documented. As part of the Queen's University Library, the Archives is also coordinating with other university library and archives members of the Canadian Web Archiving Coalition that are documenting the impacts of COVID-19 in their locales.

Even though so much information has been coming out so quickly, the Archives is well positioned to capture it. In 2016, the Archives launched a program to make a web archive of the university’s online presence. And in 2018 they expanded this effort to make records of some significant government documents as well. When the time came to capture material related to COVID-19, the Archives was able to build off of this work and start collecting material quickly.

Archiving websites

For its ongoing digital archiving projects, Queen’s uses Archive-It, an application created by the Internet Archive. With Archive-It, Queen’s can capture URLs at specific moments in time, keeping a record of websites and pages for posterity.

The Queen’s Archives is frequently capturing the official websites for city and public health agencies, as we all as the university’s main website and its COVID-19 website. But it is also keeping records of many relevant stories that appear in local media outlets, especially The Kingston Whig-Standard. Queen’s Gazette stories in the Confronting COVID-19 series are also documented in the archive. Even some particularly significant Tweets from the university and local institutions will be captured.

The future of the COVID-19 archive

The future of the pandemic remains uncertain, but the Queen’s University Archives is committed to adding to their coronavirus archive for as long as necessary. When the pandemic eventually subsides, the Archives will also consider expanding the kinds of materials they include texts like personal accounts of the experience.

While they cannot know for certain who will use the archive in the future, they believe it will hold wide appeal. “The archive will be open to everyone, so a lot of people will be able to find creative uses for it. It will definitely be of interest to historians who want to understand how COVID-19 affected Queen’s and Kingston. But I also think future students and community members will want to use it to learn about this period. It’s our responsibility to collect this material as best as we can. It will be up to later generations to decide how they want to use it,” says Heil.

To learn more, visit the COVID-19 Archive, but please note that some materials are currently being processed and are not yet able to be viewed. For more information about the Queen’s Archives, visit their website.

Principal Deane to host online town hall on May 13

All faculty and staff are invited to participate in an online town hall with Principal Patrick Deane to discuss the current COVID-19 situation at Queen’s, as well as the university’s plans for the future.

The event is scheduled for Wednesday, May 13, 2:00-3:30 pm via Microsoft Teams.

Joining Principal Deane will be:

  • Mark Green, Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic)
  • Donna Janiec, Vice-Principal (Finance & Administration)
  • Kim Woodhouse, Vice-Principal (Research)
  • David Walker, Special Advisor to the Principal on COVID-19

Questions for Principal Deane or another panelist can be submitted online, by noon on Tuesday, May 12. Questions will also be taken live during the event. This meeting will be recorded and posted to the principal’s website following the event.

Join the meeting by clicking on this link.

Queen’s-KHSC team develop in-house COVID-19 test

Researchers from Queen’s and Kingston Health Sciences Centres have developed a test that provides results in just 24 hours.

A researcher analyzes a COVID-19 test
Queen’s University and Kingston Health Sciences Centres (KHSC) partnered with Public Health Ontario Laboratories and Hamilton Health Sciences Center to develop an in-house test for COVID-19 that can be completed in large volumes and provide results in 24 hours. (Photo by Matthew Manor / Kingston Health Sciences Centre)

Testing is key to containment and management of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Yet, the costs, availability, and current timelines for testing have challenged health-care systems worldwide.

Anticipating these complications, in the early days of the pandemic, a team of researchers from Queen’s University and Kingston Health Sciences Centres (KHSC) partnered with Public Health Ontario Laboratories and Hamilton Health Sciences Center to develop an in-house test that could be completed in large volumes by redeployed and retrained technologists and provide results in 24 hours. The test has since been licensed by the Ontario Ministry of Health.

“We wanted to be up and running with a test for SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) as soon as possible because we knew other labs were having supply issues with commercial tests,” says Prameet Sheth, Assistant Professor, Department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine, and Director of Microbiology in the Division of Microbiology at KHSC. “We decided to create our own test so that shortages of reagent (a substance or mixture for use in chemical analysis) would not be a major hurdle in our testing capacity. The second consideration was that the cost of a lab-developed test is about a tenth of the commercial platforms.”

Testing for detection

While all tests for coronavirus have the same principle of detection, each targets a different part of the virus. For example, the test the team developed does not actually detect the virus itself, but it identifies genetic information of the virus.

How is this done? Nasal swab samples from tested individuals are analyzed for any presence of the coronavirus’s genetic material, using a technique known as a “polymerase chain reaction.”

The team explains that PCR is a method used in molecular biology that allows for a particular piece of DNA to be targeted and copied many, many times. Eventually, the genetic sequence is amplified so much that it can be detected by specialized laboratory equipment at KHSC. But if the COVID-19 sequence is not present in the sample, nothing would get duplicated, so the test would be negative.

Once samples are ready, it takes three to four hours to complete the process and results are reported out as soon as they are available. This has allowed not only more tests to be completed from a few per day to a capacity of 400 per day  in the Kingston region, but also for Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox and Addington Public Health to inform tested patients of outcomes within two days.

The result is more tests and faster results at a fraction of the cost. The team’s testing technique has been shared with other laboratories across Ontario through a provincial diagnostic network, which has been set up so that Ontario could see a coordinated approach to COVID-19 testing across the province.

A networked approach

Established by Ontario Health, the network includes all Ontario laboratories undertaking COVID-19 testing to ensure all labs can meet capacity and testing requirements and work together to manage needs. The group meets seven days a week as a means of sharing laboratory data, problem solving, and idea generation. 

“Laboratories have never seen the volume of testing that has been pouring in as a result of the pandemic,” says Lewis Tomalty, Assistant Professor, Department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine and Service Chief, Clinical Microbiology at KHSC.  “Early on, a number of the large labs that would normally be the primary providers of such testing became overwhelmed and turnaround times started to suffer. The goal of the network is to ensure the ability to offload from labs that were at overcapacity to other labs that had the ability to take on more volume.”

This partnership means that all laboratories are able to provide COVID 19 results in reasonable timeframes, and immediately react and re-direct specimens if a laboratory goes down (e.g. equipment malfunction or supply limitations). 

The Queen’s and KHSC team will continue to monitor the virus and will be sure to adapt the test if the virus changes over time, which is something they do each year for influenza.

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