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Confronting COVID-19

7 ways meaningful activities can help us get through the coronavirus pandemic

Keeping busy during the pandemic by taking on a new hobby or tackling a home renovation project can help us get through challenging times. (Shutterstock)
Keeping busy during the pandemic by taking on a new hobby or tackling a home renovation project can help us get through challenging times. (Shutterstock)

We hear over and over that it is important to remain occupied during pandemic restrictions. People are gardening, baking bread and taking on DIY projects in record numbers. But what exactly does all this “occupation” do for us in stressful times?

Meaningful activities can be a source of healing and relief in stressful times. In the fall of 2011, in response to the events of September 11, I contributed a position paper to an expert panel of the American Occupational Therapy Foundation that sought to offer guidance on meaningful activities. Although the current circumstances are dramatically different, the argument is much the same. Being occupied is good for us, and its benefits are even greater when we are beset with uncertainty, distress or upheaval.

As long as human history has been recorded, we have known that it is important for human beings to be occupied in meaningful ways. Based on an exhaustive review of the international literature, there is solid evidence for seven ways that meaningful activities can support our well-being in difficult times.

1. Identity: What we do reminds us of who we are. How we occupy ourselves contributes to the formation and maintenance of the self. Difficult times threaten the integrity of the self. Occupation provides the mechanism through which the past, present and future of the self are integrated. In the face of difficult circumstances, occupation offers the potential for a fuller, more integrated self once the crisis resolves.

2. Mastery: Occupation reminds us of our capacity for exercising control over our circumstances. It validates our sense of being able to master a situation, turn it to our advantage and come out of it intact. Occupation makes people agents of their situation rather than victims of it. Occupation is both intrinsically motivated and intrinsically rewarding because of its validation of our sense of mastery and adaptation.

A woman on a red mat doing yoga in a white bedroom
Developing and maintaining habits help regain a sense of control. (Shutterstock)

3. Habit: Being occupied in usual ways in the midst of a crisis reinforces in us our normal daily habits. It reassures us that the world continues to turn and that it is possible to have a normal life again. Habits have been understood for many years to have restorative properties when chaos appears to otherwise reign. Habits have been shown to increase skill, decrease fatigue, free attention and protect individuals against the stressful effects of difficult situations.

4. Diversion: Doing something provides a diversion from the negative aspects of stressful situations. Diversional activity allows individuals to transcend the obstacles and difficulties of their daily lives, and in some circumstances, to even achieve an optimal experience beyond the fixed realities of time and space — a state we call “flow.” Occupation has the power to divert people away from the difficulties in their lives, toward satisfaction and healthy engagement.

5. Support: Being occupied often involves interacting with others — providing support to their coping efforts, and receiving support in return. The sense of belonging is widely understood to be one of the factors that helps people to achieve positive outcomes and to weather stress without undue negative consequences for their health. Shared occupations can thus have a two-fold positive effect. Besides the obvious beneficial effects for the recipient of support, occupations contributing to the welfare of another have been shown to have numerous benefits for the provider as well.

6. Survival: Many occupations actually have survival value. Evidence from anthropology and prehistory show that humans created and differentiated occupations that promoted co-operation and favoured the survival of both the individual and the group. Occupations meet safety and sustenance needs, and as such are essential tools for survival.

Hands baking bread
Baking bread is both a way to stay occupied and a useful life skill. (Shutterstock)

7. Spiritual Connection: Finally, when difficult times arise, occupations can be the means through which meaning in life is restored. Whereas in earlier times, people might have turned to religion to restore meaning, in the contemporary world of secular pluralism, occupation may be the most effective medium available through which individuals can affirm their connection with the self, with others, with the cosmos and with the divine. In stressful times, being occupied may provide the sense that one is not alone, both literally and in the most profound sense.

So keep on learning to knit, doing yoga online and sorting photographs. There are seven good reasons to do so, all of which will help to see you through this pandemic with your sense of self and community intact.The Conversation


Mary Ann McColl, Professor, School of Rehabilitation Therapy, Queen's University.

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

Library doubles bookable study spaces

In response to student feedback and the upcoming exam period, while also considering the success of earlier phases of re-opening library spaces, Queen’s University Library is doubling the number of bookable seats available in Stauffer Library.

Students will also be able to continue to book seats at the Education Library in Duncan MacArthur Hall, and additional spaces in Mackintosh-Corry Hall. Additionally, the limit per month has been increased from 40 to 60 hours across campus per student.

Please see the Bookable Seats page for more information. With more students being welcomed back to the library, be sure to check out the Queen’s University Library’s instructional video and the Use of Bookable Seats page, in order to have a sense of what you can expect as you visit the available spaces.

Leveraging creative potential during a pandemic

Queen’s University researchers respond to a critical need with unique music program Rise, ShineSing!

The Accessible and Inclusive Music Theatre project, led by Queen’s researchers Julia Brook and Colleen Renihan, is embarking on its second year of investigating how participation in an accessible online music and movement program can improve well-being and foster creativity, particularly among older adults.  

The first year of the program Rise, ShineSing! included three weeks of in-person sessions at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts which saw sessions of 50 people in the rehearsal hall, singing and moving together, followed by 12 weeks of online sessions over Zoom. 

We came together as a team to consider what a collaborative approach to these wicked problems of ageism in music theatre, loneliness, and a lack of understanding about the creative potential of people throughout the lifespan could yield,” says Dr. Renihan, whose research investigates issues of voice, cultural memory, and empathy in opera and music theatre. 

After moving online due to the pandemic, Drs. Brook and Renihan decided to continue the program, based on its early success. 

We determined this program filled a significant need in the community,” says Dr. BrookWe are both community-minded musicians and scholars, wanting to work and make beautiful change in our local community here in Kingston. We believe in the flexibility that music theatre offers with its combination of music, story, and movement. We believe that one can thrive and be creative across the lifespan. 

Dr. Renihan adds for the second year of the program they are aiming to share their findings through publication, public presentations, and through the formation of a national network of researchers and creators with similar goalsThey are also interested in the effects of participation in this kind of creative work on well-being. Finally, with the pandemic, they are investigating the surprising gains of engaging in performance and creation over Zoom. 

The second year of the program includes participants from outside of Kingston, including some people from long-term care homes, recognizing the need in this community for interaction, connection, and artistic stimulation, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

During each weekly session, participants engage in a series of vocal and movement warm-ups, and sing and dance to a repertoire of folk, musical theatre, and popular hits. 

“Our project aims to find ways to help people of all ages and abilities to leverage their creative and artistic potentials in a digital space,” says Dr. Brook, whose research area focused on music education. 

This research project is currently recruiting participants of all ages and abilities: No previous singing or dancing experience is required, and no digital savvy beyond clicking the Zoom link is needed. 

To find out more, sign up for a weekly newsletter and get the Zoom link to participate by visiting the project’s website at www.riseshinesing.ca. 

The Accessible and Inclusive Music Theatre Project is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, and the Dan School of Drama and Music at Queen’s University. 

Checking in with students

  • Kate Johnson speaks with engineering students
    University Chaplain Kate Johnson speaks with Queen's students about their experience so far this year with remote learning. (University Communications)
  • Larissa Mankis speaks with a pair of students at the door to their house
    Larissa Mankis, project lead for Support Services & Community Engagement, speaks with Queen's students during the Treat Yourself initiative on Tuesday, Nov. 11. (University Communications)
  • A Treat Yourself team interacts with students on the sidewalk and at the entrance of a house.
    Treat Yourself teams handed out treat bags and information about student services and resources, upcoming on-campus flu vaccine clinics, how to socialize safely, tips on staying connected and active, and much more. (University Communications)
  • Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Coordinator Barb Lotan speaks with a student at her door
    Barb Lotan, Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Coordinator, and her dog Trixy deliver a treat bag and information on health and wellness resources at Queen's University. (University Communications)

Queen’s students living in the near-campus neighbourhood received a special check-in visit from  Student Affairs staff and campus partners on Nov. 11 and 12.

Going door to door, while observing social distancing and other safety measures, the “Treat Youself” initiative created an in-person opportunity for staff to ask students how they are doing, hear about their experiences with remote learning, and what would be helpful for the university to consider with respect to their needs. 

The teams were equipped with treat bags and information about student services and resources, upcoming on-campus flu vaccine clinics, how to socialize safely, tips on staying connected and active, and much more. They also promoted university services that are open for in-person bookings, including study spaces, library services, and workout availability at the Athletics and Recreation Centre.

“The students we spoke with were happy to see us and appreciated the opportunity to chat about their challenges and successes of the past few months,” says Larissa Mankis, project lead for Support Services & Community Engagement (SS&CE). “It was great to hear how resilient many of our students are in these uncertain times.”

In addition to the team in SS&CE, Mankis also thanks the offices on campus that contributed their time and resources to support this initiative including: Off-Campus Housing; Student Experience Office; Faith and Spiritual Life; Student Wellness Services; Sexual Violence Prevention & Response Office; Student Life & Learning; and Office of the Vice-Provost and Dean of Student Affairs, as well as the volunteers who completed the deliveries.

Treat Yourself was the second near-campus neighbourhood tour of the term, following an off-campus student Welcome Kit distribution in September as part of ongoing efforts to engage with students living in nearby housing and help them navigate the COVID-19 context.

“For those who volunteered, this was another opportunity to show students we are thinking about them, that we are here, and that we appreciate all they are doing to keep themselves and their community safe,” says Lindsay Winger, Assistant Dean, Support Services and Community Engagement, Student Affairs. “We appreciate how different a year this is, and we want to thank them for the steps they are taking, and make sure they are aware of all of the ways they can stay well, get involved and access support.”

Any student is encouraged to email supportservices@queensu.ca to receive the information that was distributed, and chat with a staff member. 

The impact of delayed cancer treatments

New research shows minimizing treatment delays could improve cancer survival rates.

Tim Hanna
Timothy Hanna (Oncology) of the Cancer Research Institute at Queen's University teamed up with Will King (Public Health Services) and King's College London's Ajay Aggarwal, for a study on impact on a person’s mortality if their cancer treatment is delayed by at least one month. (Supplied Photo) 

A new international study led by researchers from Queen’s University and King’s College London has found there is a significant impact on a person’s mortality if their cancer treatment is delayed by even one month. The study published Nov. 6 in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) found in many cases, patients have a six to 13 per cent higher risk of dying from cancer if their treatment is delayed by four weeks. The risk keeps rising the longer their treatment does not begin. The study was led by Timothy Hanna, Associate Professor (Oncology) at the Cancer Research Institute at Queen’s University, as well as Will King (Public Health Sciences) and Ajay Aggarwal (King’s College London).

Researchers embarked on the study because most countries have experienced deferrals of elective cancer surgery and radiotherapy as well as reductions in the use of systemic therapies because of COVI-19. Health systems have also redirected resources to preparing for the pandemic.

The researchers carried out a review and analysis of relevant studies into the subject published between January 2000 and April 2020. 

These studies had data on surgical interventions, systemic therapy (such as chemotherapy), or radiotherapy for seven forms of cancer – bladder, breast, colon, rectum, lung, cervix, and head and neck – that together, represent 44 per cent of all incident cancers globally.

They found 34 suitable studies for 17 types of conditions that needed to be treated (indications). These studies collectively involved more than 1.2 million patients. The association between delay and increased mortality was significant for 13 of these 17 indications.

In addition, the researchers calculated that delays of up to eight weeks and 12 weeks further increased the risk of death and used the example of an eight-week delay in breast cancer surgery which would increase the risk of death by 17 per cent, and a 12-week delay that would increase the risk by 26 per cent. 

“As we move towards the second COVID-19 wave in many countries, the results emphasize the need to prioritize cancer services including surgery, drug treatments and radiotherapy as even a four-week delay can significantly increase the risk of cancer death” says Dr. Aggarwal. 

The authors acknowledged that their study had limitations such as the fact that it was based on data from observational research which cannot establish cause, and it was possible that patients with longer treatment delays were destined to have inferior outcomes for reasons of having multiple illnesses or treatment morbidity.

The analysis was based on a large amount of data and researchers ensured that they only included high quality studies that accurately measured what they were investigating.

“A four-week delay in treatment is associated with an increase in mortality across all common forms of cancer treatment, with longer delays being increasingly detrimental” says Dr. Hanna. “In light of these results, policies focused on minimizing system level delays in cancer treatment initiation could improve population level survival outcomes.”

The research is now available online in The BMJ.

Promoting Research@Queen’s

Looking back on some of the most compelling stories of the Discover Research@Queen’s promotional campaign.

In February, the university launched an institutional campaign, Discover Research@Queen’s, to showcase the impactful research happening at Queen’s and to build engagement with the new Research@Queen’s website.

  • [Photo of compacted plastics]
    Diving into microplastics: Addressing our "wicked" waste problem: Microplastics – They are in the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the water we consume, and we are still learning about what this means for our health, the health of our environment, and our future. How do we tackle this “wicked” problem? Queen’s researcher Myra Hird believes the answer is in our own consumption habits.
  • [Photo of a woman touching her forehead]
    Strange physical symptoms? Blame the chronic stress of life during the COVID-19 pandemic: Itchy skin? More aches and pains? Unusual rash? Headaches? Pimples? If you've been experiencing unusual physical symptoms recently, Queen's researcher Kate Harkness explains it may be due to living with chronic stress for The Conversation Canada.
  • [Photo of Samuel Dahan and Xiaodan Zhu by Bernard Clark]
    Championing AI for social justice: Queen's University researchers Samuel Dahan and Xiaodan Zhu are using AI to level the legal playing field for Canadians, including those affected by COVID-19 unemployment.
  • [Art of Research Photo by Grace Adeniyi-Ogunyankin of a market in Adelabu]
    Capturing the Art of Research: Celebrating the 2020 prize recipients: The Queen’s Art of Research photo contest celebrates its fifth year, with the selection of ten stunning winning images.
  • [Illustration of a bar graph and tree by Gary Neill]
    Fixing financial fairy tales – The rise of sustainable finance in Canada: The Institute for Sustainable Finance based at Queen's Smith School of Business is dedicated to exploring how the many different ways in which we spend money might be adapted to reflect the principles of sustainability.

However, much like the rest of the world, the campaign had to take stock and respond to the urgent concerns of the pandemic. As a consequence, the campaign was paused between March and May. During this period many Queen’s researchers pivoted their efforts to focus on pandemic relief and research, sharing their expertise and advice with the public as the crisis unfolded. In April, the campaign was reimagined to reflect these activities culminating in a new virtual events series with Advancement, Conversations Confronting COVID-19, where Queen’s researchers and alumni were able to discuss their research, provide comment, and take questions. These Conversations have reached more than 1,000 people and featured topics such as innovation and aging during the pandemic.

“The original goal of the campaign was to help our audiences discover the critical and impactful research happening at Queen’s,” says Michael Fraser, Vice-Principal (University Relations). “While COVID-19 forced us to rethink our approach to a degree, the success of these efforts illustrate how eager our audiences are to understand how the work being done by Queen’s researchers can make a difference.”

Overall, the campaign has doubled traffic to the Research@Queen’s website and helped drive significant awareness of the research happening at Queen’s. As we wrap up the campaign, the last phase features some of the most well-received stories featured over the last 10 months.

Discover Research@Queen’s Stories and Features

Diving into microplastics: Addressing our "wicked" waste problem: Microplastics – They are in the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the water we consume, and we are still learning about what this means for our health, the health of our environment, and our future. How do we tackle this “wicked” problem? Queen’s researcher Myra Hird believes the answer is in our own consumption habits.

Strange physical symptoms? Blame the chronic stress of life during the COVID-19 pandemic: Itchy skin? More aches and pains? Unusual rash? Headaches? Pimples? If you've been experiencing unusual physical symptoms recently, Queen's researcher Kate Harkness explains it may be due to living with chronic stress for The Conversation Canada.

Championing AI for social justice: Queen's University researchers Samuel Dahan and Xiaodan Zhu are using AI to level the legal playing field for Canadians, including those affected by COVID-19 unemployment.

Capturing the Art of Research: Celebrating the 2020 prize recipients: The Queen’s Art of Research photo contest celebrates its fifth year, with the selection of 10 stunning winning images.

Fixing financial fairy tales – The rise of sustainable finance in Canada: The Institute for Sustainable Finance, based at Queen's Smith School of Business, is dedicated to exploring how the many different ways in which we spend money might be adapted to reflect the principles of sustainability.

For more information, visit the Research@Queen’s website or contact Melinda Knox, Associate Director, Research Profile and Initiatives.

Fall Convocation to be hosted virtually

Queen’s University will celebrate its newest graduates during Fall Convocation 2020, being held Nov. 10-13.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, these will be the first virtual ceremonies for Queen’s. However, the ceremonies will follow the same structure with special efforts being made to maintain the community feel as well as the university’s traditions.

A noted businessman, Bruce Mitchell (Sc’68) is the founder and CEO of Permian Industries, a management and holding company. He has acquired over 30 businesses, diversifying Permian’s investments across a number of industries. Today, Mitchell’s holding company’s subsidiaries generate annual sales in excess of $2 billion and employ more than 4,000 across North America. He has been active on a number of public company, private corporation, and not-for-profit boards, and was a trustee and councillor of Queen’s, serving as vice-chair of the Board of Trustees. He has also established The Bruce H. Mitchell Foundation and works with his wife Vladka on various philanthropic initiatives.
Mitchell whole-heartedly accepted the invitation to receive his honorary degree virtually, and is honored to address all graduates at Fall 2020 convocation.

“These are extraordinary times, and the limits on how many people can gather together remain in place, but that doesn’t take away from the importance of convocation for our graduates and their family, friends, and supports,” says Principal and Vice-Chancellor Patrick Deane. “This is a time to celebrate each graduate’s achievement, and to mark this special occasion as we always have – as a community.”

Each ceremony will be hosted at Grant Hall with university officials conducting the events as they have for nearly 180 years. The podium party of Chancellor Jim Leech, Principal  Deane, and Rector Sam Hiemstra, will speak to each graduating group, as will the deans of each faculty and a representative from the Queen’s University Alumni Association.

Also speaking will be honorary degree recipient Bruce Mitchell (Sc’68), the lead donor for Mitchell Hall, which opened in March 2019.

Following the conferral of student degrees, each student name will be presented by program/plan. A total of 2,351 graduates will be recognized over eight ceremonies.

Each faculty will host its own ceremony, while another for PhD and Master’s degree recipients will be hosted by the School of Graduate Studies.

Several faculties will also be hosting post-ceremony online celebrations.


Tuesday, Nov. 10, 10 am
School of Graduate Studies (Doctor of Philosophy)
School of Graduate Studies (Master’s and Diploma)

Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2:30 pm
Smith School of Business

Tuesday, Nov. 10, 3:30 pm
Faculty of Health Sciences

Thursday, Nov. 12, 10 am
Faculty of Arts and Science

Thursday, Nov. 12, 2:30 pm
Faculty of Education

Friday, Nov. 13, 10 am
Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science

Friday, Nov. 13, 2:30 pm
Faculty of Law

Recordings of each ceremony can be found and viewed at the Office of the University Registrar website.


5 failings of the Great Barrington Declaration

Some women wear a mask while other do not while waiting for a traffic light
Facing the threat of COVID-19, we have never been in more need of coherent and consistent messaging from the medical professionals, scientists, public health agencies and the government. (Unsplash / Kate Trifo)

Good science and sound public health policy are needed to guide us through a pandemic that will likely continue throughout 2021. Public buy-in is essential for long-term adherence to effective public health measures such as wearing masks in indoor spaces, hand washing, maintaining physical distancing and staying home when sick.

These measures can control case spread but, let’s face it, they are no fun. Even harder to weather are the intermittent closures of businesses and schools in response to local pandemic spikes.

We have never been in more need of coherent and consistent messaging from the medical professionals, scientists, public health agencies and the government. Unfortunately, reckless messaging by some doctors and scientists is feeding mistrust of public health policies.

Infectious bad ideas called cognogens readily spread in our stressed pandemic environment. One such cognogen, the Great Barrington Declaration , is causing harm. The declaration takes its name from Great Barrington, a Massachusetts resort town. This declaration, signed by 12,000 people, is sponsored by the American Institute for Economic Research, a libertarian think-tank.

The declaration begins with the false premise that governments intend to lock down society, and cherry-picks facts (for example, that COVID-19 infections are mild in healthy people). It states:

“Those who are not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal. The most compassionate approach that balances the risks and benefits of reaching herd immunity, is to allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk.”

The 5 flaws

1. It creates a false dichotomy. The declaration rhetoric offers a false choice between a wholesale return to our pre-pandemic lives (which is objectively dangerous) versus a total lockdown (which no one advocates). Across Canada, schools, daycares and businesses are open and we are providing health care for patients who suffer from non-COVID-19 diseases. Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in health law and policy, notes that it’s not a binary choice between the Barrington perspective and full lockdown, and that governments are striving to balance public health with economic recovery.

This is true in Ontario where, after the first COVID-19 peak, the province reopened in three stages, guided by epidemiology.

2. The Barrington declaration gives oxygen to fringe groups. The signatories did not intend to support such fringe groups, but their rhetoric invalidates public health policy and feeds the 19 per cent of North Americans who don’t trust public health officials.

When physicians and scientists sign on to the declaration they support the fears of an increasingly anxious public and fuel conspiracy theories. This is even more dangerous in America with a president that many people view as divisive, and fringe groups such as the paramilitary Oath Keepers and QAnon.

3. The Barrington declaration puts individual preference far above public good. The declaration advocates that, “individual people, based upon their own perception of their risk of dying from COVID-19 and other personal circumstances, personally choose the risks, activities and restrictions they prefer.”

If these views were applied to traffic safety, chaos would ensue as we each chose our own speed limit and which side of the road to drive on. Public health matters, and the approach of the declaration to place ideology over facts helps fuel the pandemic.

4. The declaration misunderstands herd immunity. Herd immunity occurs when a large enough proportion of the population has immunity, usually more than 70 per cent. Viral spread is then slowed because the virus largely encounters immune people. Herd immunity can be safely achieved by vaccines, but in order to “naturally” develop herd immunity, people must first survive the infection.

Despite more than 9 million cases in the United States, less than 10 per cent of Americans have COVID-19 antibodies. Even if true caseloads were 10-fold greater than recognized, 94 per cent of people remain susceptible and, if rapidly infected, would swamp the health-care system and lead to many avoidable deaths.

The declaration’s approach amounts to a global chickenpox party, a historical means of generating immunity to the varicella-zoster virus that causes chickenpox. Healthy children were put in close contact with an infected child so that all became infected with chickenpox.

Unfortunately, even some healthy children suffered severe complications and unintended people were often infected. At least with chickenpox there was no risk of epidemic spread because society had herd immunity (which we lack for COVID-19).

5. The declaration offers no details on how it would protect the vulnerable. In Ontario, more than 60 per cent of COVID-19 deaths have occurred in residents of nursing homes and long-term care (LTC) facilities. COVID-19 is imported into LTCs from the community by relatives and health-care workers, so we must prevent viral spread in the community to keep these vulnerable people safe.

A pair of men, wearing masks, take a break during an outdoor workout (Unsplash / Kate Trifo)

The experts have spoken: Experts view the Barrington declaration as wrong-minded and dangerous. Dr. Anthony Fauci dismissed the idea, calling it dangerous.

The declaration is also rebutted by the 6,400 vetted signatories of the John Snow Memorandum, named for the 19th-century pioneer of epidemiology.

The Snow memorandum cites clear evidence that the virus is highly contagious, several times more lethal than influenza and can have lasting consequences, even in healthy people. It affirms that COVID-19 can be constrained by good public health measures, and warns that herd immunity may be hard to achieve. It concludes:

“… controlling community spread of COVID-19 is the best way to protect our societies and economies until safe and effective vaccines and therapeutics arrive within the coming months.”

The Infectious Diseases Society of America’s 12,000 front-line infectious diseases scientists, physicians and public health experts strongly denounce the Barrington declaration.

Finally, Wisconsin’s epidemic exemplifies the failure of Barrington declaration’s ideology. Its Republican-controlled legislature has supported legal challenges to the governor’s mask mandate even as the state’s rate of positive COVID-19 tests spiked to nearly 30 per cent and hospitalizations skyrocketed.

The Great Barrington Declaration, supported by U.S. President Donald Trump, is naive and dangerous. Physicians and scientists must be responsible in our pronouncements and not sow mistrust of effective public health measures.The Conversation


Stephen Archer, Professor, Head of Department of Medicine, Queen's University, Ontario

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

A different view of COVID-19

Queen’s University researcher Mona Kanso develops new way of looking at novel coronavirus that could help uncover treatments

Queen’s University researcher Mona Kanso has developed a new and unique way of looking at viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. By sculpting the coronavirus particle from tiny beads, and then applying the laws of fluid physics to each and every bead, Kanso calculates the properties of the coronavirus from its shape. While the full potential of this new method is still being realized, researchers expect it will accelerate the path to developing a treatment and, eventually, finding a cure. 

“We know of no other way to calculate the transport properties of a virus from its shape,” Kanso says. 

SARS-CoV-2 is a spherical shell covered with spikes called peplomers, which the virus uses to attach itself to the cells it infects. Since the virus cannot move itself, it relies on the random thermal motion of its fluid surroundings, to rotate, to align its spikes with its target on a cell. Once attached, the virus can infect the cell and then spread. 

“Think of it like a jittery spaceship docking with a space station,” explains Kanso, (PhD chemical engineering candidate, Vanier Canada Research Scholar). “The jittery virus must align two of its adjacent spikes, just so, with the binding sites so it can attach to the cell. It relies on kinetic molecular energy from the fluid to rotate itself into position.” 

This research opens the door to understanding drugs that might prevent cell binding by interfering with virus rotational diffusion. It also deepens scientists’ understanding of viral cellular infection. 

Kanso collaborated with her Queen’s summer trainee, Jourdain Piette, along with their Queen’s advisor, Professor Jeffrey Giacomin, sheltered in place on his sabbatical leave on the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno, and with Dr. Giacomin’s UNR host, Professor James Hanna. 

“In this work, we uncover a better way of looking at viruses,” says Kanso. “Like any engineering problem, trying to solve it without understanding it, takes forever. This coronavirus is spiked for more than one reason. There is the obvious mechanical function of target attachment. But its spikes are also controlling its own jitter, by receiving energy from the fluid, to help it dock with its targets. This coronavirus is a far more formidable adversary than it looks.” 

The next step is to explore how the triangular bulb on the tip of each coronavirus spike affects infection. Also, under the microscope, not all of the coronaviruses are spherical. Called pleomorphism, no one knows how this affects the alignment and attachment probability.  

The research is published, and freely available, in Physics of Fluids

Course takes a closer look at COVID-19

A mask sits on top of a computer keyboard
Students in Samantha King's HLTH 334 The Politics of Health and Illness course are taking a closer look at COVID-19 and its wide-ranging affects while it is still happening. (Unsplash/Dmitri Karastelev)

As the pandemic began to spread around the world earlier this year, Samantha King, a professor at Queen’s University’s School of Kinesiology and Health Studies, saw an opportunity to elevate her course HLTH 334 The Politics of Health and Illness – taking a closer look at COVID-19 and its wide-ranging affects while it is still happening.

Previous iterations of the course also addressed viruses, vaccines, and epidemics but COVID-19 is current and front-of-mind for practically everyone. New information is constantly coming in but the focus of the course hasn’t changed – teaching students how health and illness are not simply biological individual experiences but collective social phenomena with political implications.

New textbook looks at bioethics and COVID-19
Staying current is an important aspect of creating a textbook for post-secondary education.
The newly-published This Is Bioethics, co-authored by Udo Schuklenk, Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Ontario Research Chair in Bioethics, and Ruth Chadwick, Professor Emerita of Cardiff University, addresses some of the ethical questions surrounding COVID-19 as well as many other fundamental questions, concepts, and issues within the rapidly-evolving area of study.
Within the chapter on public health, the authors approach the ethical implications of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The section looks at topics like triage decision-making, whether health care professionals have a duty to treat if PPE is absent or suboptimal, as well as the ethics of flattening the curve given such a policy’s harmful economic impact on people’s lives, and whether vaccines for this virus should be mandatory.
“Ruth Chadwick and I were fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to put the finishing touches on this book when COVID-19 turned into a pandemic,” Dr. Schuklenk says. “We quickly decided to add relevant content in the public (and global) health ethics chapter so that students reading the book would find content that already responds to our current life situation. Unsurprisingly, many student questions and discussion contributions are COVID19 related.”
Dr. Schuklenk also produced video lectures for each chapter which are currently being used in a Queen’s Arts and Science Online course.

With a new plan, Dr. King quickly got to work identifying source material while utilizing a similar theoretical framework used in the course previously. She also had to develop the course for a remote learning model, with Queen’s moving most of its program online due to the pandemic.

“This course is really about trying to understand that the way we organize our society impacts how people experience health and illness,” Dr. King explains, adding that students generally enter kinesiology and health studies programs with an interest in improving the community’s overall health. “I am trying to get students to think about the relationship between their own experiences of the pandemic and larger social patterns and relations of power, and to understand that the virus didn’t come out of nowhere, that it came out of a particular context and that how we respond to it is not inevitable.”

Finding relevant and quality material for the course wasn’t a problem. More time-consuming was sifting through the massive amount of information regarding the latest developments that is constantly being put out and updated. But, with a lot of reading, Dr. King was able to select meaningful, interesting and accessible articles, academic and popular, for the students.

In moving the course to a remote learning model Dr. King has employed both synchronous and asynchronous components. Students also have an opportunity to meet with her at least once a week and also participate in smaller groups with a TA.

“The structure is working out well and that is as much about the small class size as it is about the remote learning,” she says. “I might continue to divide their tutorials into smaller groups once we return to face-to-face learning. Students are talking more and the conversation is more organic even though they are in little boxes on the screen. In the bigger lectures I have to work harder to get them to participate, but putting them into breakout rooms, then asking them to report back, helps with that.”

One of the areas of particular interest within the course are masks and why some people are open to wearing them while others are extremely opposed. This is where politics have played a major role.

“We are doing a semester-long project on masks and I am trying to help students understand how decisions about masking are not only about public health but connected to bigger political ideologies.,” he says. “Studying masks and people’s attitudes to them offers a powerful lens into what’s happening in the world right now, politically, economically, and socially.”

The findings are then being shared through a blog being created by the students themselves. The hope is that the material being posted will benefit those that access it.

“I haven’t done a blog as part of a course before,” Dr. King says. “I decided to do it this time because I thought if we are doing all this work to learn about COVID-19 and explain it to each other, we really should share it with the public too.”


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