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Confronting COVID-19

Coronavirus in Canadian prisons

Prison lawyers in Canada are scrambling to fill the gap left by federal inaction on inmate populations who are vulnerable to COVID-19.

Empty prison range, with a few doors open
Prisons around the worlds have started to reduce their population in response to the coronavirus pandemic. (Unsplash / Matthew Ansley)

The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare several unsettling truths about Canada’s prison system. Our institutions of state punishment are filled with medically vulnerable people, affected by lifelong difficulties accessing care along with unhealthy prison conditions.

While life expectancy for most Canadians is 79 for males and 83 for females, two-thirds of the people who die of natural deaths while in federal custody are under the age of 65.

Another truth rarely acknowledged is that the collective interests of staff and inmates are often intertwined. Highly infectious disease makes no distinctions as it spreads through a congregate living facility.

The COVID-19 crisis has mobilized jurisdictions across the world to release entire categories of inmates to protect everyone living and working inside. As UCLA law professor Sharon Dolovich has put it, even jurisdictions in the United States with longstanding imprisonment addiction have seen “conscientious officials rediscovering decarceral powers they had forgotten they had.” Still, outbreaks at places like Rikers Island in New York and Chicago’s Cook County jail are devastating in scope.

Reduction in jail population

Ontario moved quickly to reduce its jail population: from March 16 to April 9, numbers fell from 8,344 to 6,025. About 70 per cent of Ontario inmates were awaiting trial, so large reductions could be achieved simply by processing bail applications. Prosecutors, defence lawyers and judges have largely co-operated in establishing procedures and making decisions in response to the pandemic.

On April 8, the Ontario Court of Appeal granted bail in an application brought by a defendant convicted of multiple charges in a sophisticated fraud scheme who was awaiting an appeal. The court cited public health authorities to make the point that social distancing “is not only a question of protecting a given individual but also the community at large.” An outbreak may turn into wider community spread as prison staff return home. The wider the spread, “the greater the pressure will be for scarce medical resources.” The court noted that the applicant was 64 years old with underlying health issues, and concluded that his detention was not necessary in the public interest.

It is always the case that the interests of incarcerated people are closely tied to those of us living free in the community. The pandemic has altered much about normal life, including the ability to deny those ties.

Still, the federal prison system in Canada has been slow to act. On March 31, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said he directed the Parole Board and the Correctional Service to consider measures to facilitate early releases. By mid-April, little had happened — even though 170 federal inmates had tested positive, along with several staff.

The Queen’s Prison Law Clinic quickly pivoted its work to press for a more robust federal response. One of only two dedicated prison clinics in Canada, the small staff at this legal aid office in Kingston, delivers hands-on education to Queen’s University law students while providing front-line legal services to federal prisoners in eastern Ontario.

Barbed wire tops a fence at Kingston Penitentiary.
A 53-year-old prisoner at Bath Institution was granted an unescorted temporary absence on medical grounds. (Unsplash / Larry Farr)

Families of inmates are worried

By late March, the clinic was receiving desperate calls from inmates and their families, all worried about the pre-existing conditions that suggested contracting this illness would be a death sentence. The case of Derrick Snow, a 53-year-old man with a long but non-violent criminal record, moved quickly to the top of the pile.

Snow’s record revolved around drug use, and he has cancer, diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He also had a fast-approaching statutory release date of July 2020 for his most recent theft-related offence. Snow’s sister was willing to help him self-isolate in her basement apartment.

Through early April, Paul Quick, a lawyer at the Queen’s Prison Law Clinic, engaged in near-daily correspondence with Bath Institution, working to identify viable legal avenues to facilitate a potentially life-saving adjustment to Snow’s July release date.

The few official responses focused on technical issues that failed to take into account the radically altered pandemic landscape. The warden declined to make a decision by the requested date of April 10.

Lawyers who work in legal aid settings don’t rush to court on a whim. Resources are scarce and the risk of losing — and setting a bad precedent with lasting impact on others — must be carefully weighed. These lawyers also rarely work alone. Prison lawyers across the country offered ideas and resources, and the clinic partnered with outside counsel Paul Champ, a leading human rights lawyer with a longstanding commitment to civil liberties.

Prisoner released on eve of hearing

An emergency hearing was scheduled for April 17. Champ sought a mandatory injunction ordering the warden to grant Snow an unescorted temporary absence on medical grounds. Though he had only days to act — and was working from home like the rest of us — Champ filed a record that exceeded 400 pages. It included detailed expert medical evidence, pandemic policy responses in other jurisdictions and extensive correspondence showing Quick’s attempts to convince the institution to act without a lawsuit.

The strongest cases often don’t get to hearing. Filing persuasive written materials often convinces the other side of the struggles they will face in front of a judge. Sure enough, the night before the hearing was scheduled to be held, the warden of Bath Institution granted Snow a medical release.

[Paul Quick of Queen's Law Clinics works from home]
Paul Quick is a lawyer at the Queen’s Prison Law Clinic. (Supplied photo)

The warden’s decision acknowledges that, in normal circumstances, medical unescorted temporary absences are used to authorize moving a prisoner to a medical treatment facility. With prisoners who have serious medical conditions, unescorted temporary absences can now be granted when they have an “increased ability to self-isolate as per the public state of emergency related to the coronavirus pandemic.”

Maximizing impact

The Queen’s clinic is now working to capitalize on this precedent. Quick has shared materials with counsel across Canada. The clinic is reaching out to assist other vulnerable prisoners.

But this should not be a story of individual lawyers pushing individual cases. The federal government must establish an expert task force to identify prisoners for release. It should follow the World Health Organization and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which issued a joint document on March 27 calling on public authorities to prioritize the release of prisoners with underlying health conditions, low-risk profiles or those with imminent release dates.

Inmates should also have a safe place to go where they will be able to self-isolate. For many, these conditions will be sadly difficult to meet — all the more reason for systematic and quick action in the cases where release makes sense, to ease the burden on all who must remain inside a prison during a pandemic.

______________________________________________The Conversation

Lisa Kerr, Assistant Professor, Queen's University, Faculty of Law, Queen's University.

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

Advising Ontario’s healthcare system through COVID-19

Queen’s expert Chris Simpson is helping to guide Ontario’s medical response to the pandemic.

Photo of Dr. Chris Simpson
Dr. Chris Simpson is the clinical science lead for Ontario Health's COVID-19 Health System Response Oversight Table.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ontario has been gathering medical experts to advise on how the province’s healthcare system can best meet the challenges created by this global pandemic. Chris Simpson, Vice-Dean (Clinical) in the Queen’s School of Medicine and Professor in the Department of Medicine and School of Policy Studies, has been selected as one of these experts. Currently, Dr. Simpson is serving as the clinical science lead on Ontario Health’s COVID-19 Health System Response Oversight Table. As part of his work at this table, he also serves as the chair of committees addressing personal protective equipment (PPE) and surgical and procedural work in the COVID-19 era.

The Gazette connected with Dr. Simpson to learn more about his work for the province and to hear his insights on the health care system’s response so far and what may be next for medicine and physical distancing as Ontario continues to deal with the pandemic.

What is the function of the Ontario Health COVID-19 Health System Response Oversight Table? And how would you describe your role as the clinical science lead?

Simpson: With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ontario Health set up this table to oversee the work being done across the agency to address the situation. Several tables report up to the Oversight Table, including human resources, supply chain, data and analytics, communications, primary care, and emergency care. And then there is a clinical science table that is designed to rapidly respond to new and emerging evidence to help inform Ontario Health’s recommendations to the system. I am the lead of that table. And in that role, I assemble experts to rapidly evaluate new evidence to advise on issues such as the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and how we can continue to do surgical and procedural work at a time when we need to create tremendous capacity to deal with COVID surges.

What is the current state of PPE in the Province? And what recommendations has the committee put forward?

Simpson: PPE is in limited supply almost everywhere in the world right now. And so, there has been a lot of very important work done by supply chain experts on securing the kind of PPE needed by the health care sector and other frontline workers in our society.

The picture for PPE seems to be gradually improving. The security of the supply chain seems to be on its way to stabilizing. But there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done. Our Ontario Health committee on PPE has taken an evidence-based approach to the use of PPE. We want to conserve PPE whenever possible and be good stewards of the resource. In times like this, fear can play a large factor in how people might consume PPE. And we find that when we look closely at the evidence, it’s quite clear what kinds of PPE are required for various sets of circumstances. And so, by laying that out very clearly, the committee has encouraged people to use PPE in a way that keeps them very safe without overusing it or using it inappropriately. Those conservation strategies can make a huge difference. Simple things like extending your mask use between patients can help turn an eight or ten-mask shift into a two-mask shift – all the while remaining safe.

We have looked at the possibility of reprocessing or sterilizing masks so that they can be used again, which is something many people around the world have been investigating. We agreed that this would be a step we would take only if all the conventional supplies were exhausted. It’s a matter of preparing for the worse, and hoping for the best. It’s always better to plan for worst-case scenarios. If people say, in hindsight, that we over-prepared, I’m ok with that.

You also chair a committee to help determine when elective surgical and procedural work can start being performed again. What have been the effects of these procedures being put on hold due to COVID-19? And how is the committee going about finding ways to resume these activities?

Simpson: At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a recognition that we needed to create capacity in the healthcare system. We knew we needed to free up patient beds and ventilators and other resources to ensure that there would be enough PPE and ICU and ward bed capacity in the hospitals in the event that we got a huge influx of COVID patients. Part of the strategy to create capacity was to delay so-called elective procedures and surgeries and other types of care that could be temporarily put on hold.

That plan works well if the time period is three or four weeks, but if we’re looking at months, that kind of delay creates a tremendous backlog of surgeries and procedures that may be less urgent, but are no less important. For all these procedures, there is a period of time beyond which it is no longer reasonable to wait, or even safe to wait. Today’s bowel polyp snaring is tomorrow’s bowel resection. Today’s stable angina is tomorrow’s emergency bypass surgery. Today’s breast lumpectomy is tomorrow’s mastectomy. We can’t be lulled into a sense that “elective” care can be delayed for very long.

As we’re starting to think we may be seeing the peak of the first wave in Ontario, this committee is exploring options for resuming normal healthcare activity as much as is reasonable. We are very aware, though, that we must make sure that we are prepared for a second wave of COVID-19 in Ontario. That means ensuring that we have enough PPE, ventilators, and other supplies to address another outbreak. We would also need to consider the other support that’s required for surgeries and procedures, including rehabilitation therapy, imaging, and home care. There would have to be capacity in these areas. Ramping up surgical and procedural work will require a system-wide approach. And that’s what the committee is preparing for.

Our goal is to make sure that the healthcare system is looking after all patients: those with COVID-19 and those who need all the usual medical care. But we need to do so in a thoughtful way that doesn’t create unintended consequences in other parts of the system.

What do you think the future of the pandemic will look like in the province? What should people in Ontario expect in the next few months?

Simpson: We’re learning more about how the virus behaves every day. And what has become abundantly clear is that the public health measures that have been put in place are working highly effectively, particularly physical distancing. At the same time, we have to recognize that low rates of infection keep us vulnerable. As we start to plan for a gradual re-opening of society, we can’t fall into a sense of complacency. This is far from over.

When we get past this first wave, there will need to be some reopening of society, but it’s going to have to be done in a very staged way. It can’t be a complete return to normal, with large crowds gathering at concerts and sporting events. We will have to continue physical distancing to the maximum extent that we can, while finding ways to get the economy going again and enabling people to return to work. How we go about opening society again will determine what the next waves of COVID-19 will look like in Ontario. We need to keep the waves manageable so that the health care system is not overwhelmed the way it was in Italy or New York.

In the next few weeks, I think people can expect there to be discussions around opening things back up in a very measured and gradual way. When society first opens back up, it won’t look like it did before the pandemic, but it will look less restrictive than it does right now. 

______________________________________

To learn more about how Queen's experts are helping guide Ontario's response to COVID-19, read the Gazette Q&A with Troy Day, who serves on the Provincial COVID-19 Modelling Table.

The principles guiding us forward

Principal’s COVID-19 Response Steering Committee unveils guiding principles to ensure Queen’s seizes opportunities and emerges strongly from this crisis.

As the winter term wraps up with students busy writing their final exams, the university itself is fully focused on preparing for the future as the COVID-19 crisis continues to unfold.

As announced on April 13, Principal and Vice-Chancellor Patrick Deane has launched a Principal’s COVID-19 Response Steering committee and seven sub-groups to take the lead on the planning process. Together they are charged with finding innovative ways for the university to quickly adapt and thrive in this challenging and rapidly changing environment.

“We must prepare for what may lie ahead to ensure that as a community, we are ready to face future challenges but also seize upon opportunities that may present themselves because of this unique situation,” says Principal Deane. “Our future will depend on how well we are able to make changes, how innovative we are and how quickly we can adapt to a new mode of human interaction, constantly being rethought due to public health concerns.”

The seven working groups are meeting throughout April and into early May to craft strategic recommendations for the university’s Senior Leadership Team and Principal to review in early May, in areas ranging from academic regulations to research impacts, and from enrolment to remote delivery, as well as finances, budgeting, and faculty and staff supports. 

Guiding principles

These small, agile sub-groups will have representation from administrators, including Deans, staff and faculty from across the campus and most also include representation from students. They will always be mindful of equity, diversity, inclusion and indigeneity (EDII) considerations in their work. They will also be closely guided by a final set of overarching principles developed to ensure the university is able to emerge from this crisis intact and ready for the future:

  • The academic mandate of the institution must be central to all work done in response to COVID-19.  Queen’s University must continue to operate as an institution of higher learning, dedicated to providing the highest quality undergraduate and graduate programs and supporting cutting-edge research.
  • Wherever possible, our decision-making should be steered by longer-term considerations, the intention being to put the University in the best possible situation for progress and evolution beyond the COVID-19 crisis.
  • It has never been more important for the different parts of the University to work together, actively seeking cooperation with other units and being always mindful that a decision made in one part of the institution will have consequences elsewhere. Systemic thought and action are the institutional correlative of empathy and cooperation in our human interactions, and just as vital for our long-term success as a community.
  • It should be understood that the costs of the crisis will be borne by the whole institution, the correlative of which understanding is that units less impacted by the crisis will contribute to the support of units more so.
  • Wherever possible, the university must remain whole to ensure that when the crisis is over, it can emerge fully operational and ready to resume its work in the physical as well as the virtual environment.
  • People are a priority for the institution and maintaining staff, faculty and student connections is of paramount concern.
  • The institution should be driven to look beyond its borders for partnerships, supports and collaborations. Community engagement on a local, national and global front are invaluable to future success.
  • Bearing in mind all of the above, we must think and act with courage, dedication and high ambition on behalf of Queen’s University.

“I am confident that through working together in a collaborative fashion on our strategic planning for the future, we will emerge from this crisis a stronger institution. Now, more than ever, is a time to be bold and innovative and think about how Queen’s can continue to offer its students a quality educational experience distinguished by our community that supports students through exceptional teaching and research,” says Principal Deane

Confronting COVID-19 Read more articles in this series

The Principal and Provost are also in contact with student leaders and continue to work closely with them to apprise them of current issues, hear concerns and consider those concerns as decisions are being made.

“We know people are waiting to hear from us, but we also want to make sure we get this right. There is a lot at stake,” says Principal Deane. “I, along with my team, will make decisions based on the careful and detailed work of the Steering Committee and their sub-groups’ recommendations. In some cases, we may also engage other governance bodies where necessary, such as Senate and the Board of Trustees to determine next steps and determine what is needed to ensure the best future for the institution.”

The Terms of Reference for the steering committee and its sub-groups is now available on the Office of the Principal's website.

The 5-minute workout

Queen’s researcher Brendon Gurd has developed an exercise protocol that requires no equipment, can be completed anywhere, and helps improve muscle endurance in under five minutes a day.

[Woman performing a crunch exercise]
Brendon Gurd’s research has identified a set of whole-body interval training with wide application that can help solve the problems for people with limited time, space, and no access to equipment. (Image courtesy of Unsplash/Jonathan Borba)

With gyms closed and fitness classes cancelled, many of us are experiencing the challenge of exercising within cramped spaces. In fact, for some, it is not unlike the situation for someone stationed on a submarine for weeks at a time.

Queen’s researcher Brendon Gurd (School of Kinesiology and Health Studies), an expert in how exercise improves mitochondrial functions related to health and disease, was originally inspired to discover an exercise protocol that could be performed successfully even in the most confined of spaces, like on a submarine. As Principal Investigator of the Queen's Muscle Physiology Lab (QMPL), Dr. Gurd’s research has come to identify a set of whole-body interval training with wide application that can help solve the problems facing many, particularly now, of limited time, space, and no access to equipment.  

Whole-body interval training incorporates exercises such as jumping jacks and burpees to engage major muscle groups for short periods at high-energy bursts. Most commonly affiliated with routines such as high-intensity interval training (HIIT), Tabata, or short-duration interval training, the appeal of this form of exercise is that it can be accomplished in as little as five minutes, requires no equipment, and can be completed in an average-sized room.

“Among the most commonly cited barriers to being physically active in most populations are time and access to equipment,” says Dr. Gurd. “Our research studies demonstrate that whole-body interval training improves aerobic fitness similar to traditional endurance training (such as running on a treadmill for 30 minutes), but provides the additional benefit of improving some strength and muscle endurance outcomes.”

Several of these exercises may be familiar and can be an activity for the entire family. In fact, Dr. Gurd has also been using this training protocol with his family, including his children, to stay physically active and cope with stress during this time.

“Physical fitness is an important determinant of health and disease risk,” explains Dr. Gurd. “Remaining active and fit are two things that we can control. Maintaining some control in our lives through regular exercise, in addition to the direct benefits of exercise on our mental and physical health, may help us to cope with the stress associated with the current environment.”

For those interested in incorporating Dr. Gurd’s whole-body interval training into their health routine for their individual fitness levels, please see the following sample exercises or follow along with Dr. Gurd and his children in the video above.

A complete set includes eight exercise intervals, a combination of burpees, jumping jacks, mountain climbers, or squat thrusts, for 20 seconds each followed by a rest period of 10 seconds. A total workout can be completed in under five minutes. When completed four days a week for four weeks, the added benefit of improved muscle endurance has been found.

For more articles on maintaining health and wellness, see the Queen’s GazetteConfronting COVID-19” series.

Modelling the spread of COVID-19

Queen’s professor Troy Day is helping Ontario develop models to predict the future of the virus in the province.

As Ontario works to contain the spread of COVID-19, the provincial government is drawing on the expertise of researchers from its universities. Troy Day, Professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at Queen’s, has been chosen to serve on the Provincial COVID-19 Modelling Consensus Table.

On Monday, Ontario released new models projecting the future spread of the virus in the province. The Gazette connected with Dr. Day to learn about his role at the table that generates these models and also to hear his thoughts about the state of the pandemic in Ontario.

Describe the Provincial COVID-19 Modelling Consensus Table and how it is contributing to the province’s efforts to contain this coronavirus crisis.

Day: The Table is composed of people with expertise in a variety of areas including public health, epidemiology, infectious disease biology, data sciences, and mathematics and statistics. One of its main goals is to use mathematical models to rapidly address questions about the likely consequences of different public health interventions in the control of COVID-19. The Table is chaired by Dr. Adalsteinn Brown of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health (who you have likely heard in Monday’s media conference giving updates and projections on the status of COVID-19 in Ontario) and by Dr. Kumar Murty of the Field’s Institute.

What is your role at this table and what types of insight do you bring as an applied mathematician who focuses on mathematical biology?

Day: Much of the research that my group does centres on developing mathematical theory for the epidemiological and evolutionary dynamics of infectious diseases. I am one of several people on the Table that conducts this type of research and together our goal is to draw on several mathematical results and models (both from our own work and that of others) to form a consensus opinion about the likely future dynamics of COVID-19.

The Province just released updated models of the spread of the virus. What do you think the most significant findings in these models are? Are there any surprises in the data?

Day: Perhaps the most important message from Monday’s briefing is that the physical distancing measures are working. Spread within the community at large is decreasing, although we are probably only now cresting the peak of the first wave of infections. So, these measures will need to be maintained for some time still. More surprising to me at least is the importance of long-term care homes and other congregate settings in disease spread. Roughly one half of the deaths in Ontario are people living in these settings and it is obviously difficult to enact physical distancing measures to control the spread in these places.

Confronting COVID-19 Read more articles in this series

What do you think people in Ontario should prepare for as we look ahead? How long might we need to continue embracing physical distancing or other preventative measures?

Day: It is difficult at this stage to be very specific about how much longer physical distancing will need to be in place. However, since we are just now reaching the peak it will be important to maintain these measures so that we come down the other side of the wave. If we relax these measures too soon we risk losing all the ground that has been gained during the past month and having things get out of control.

For more information on the latest models from the province, see the Government of Ontario's website.

Living with a physical disability during the pandemic

Queen’s University researchers working to support people living with physical disabilities.

Exercise during isolation is important for people living with physical disabilities. (Supplied Photos)

Academic lead for the Canadian Disability Policy Alliance and Queen’s researcher Mary Ann McColl (School of Rehabilitation Therapy, Public Health Sciences) says people with disabilities face unique challenges  based on the current circumstances imposed by COVID-19. 

These include: 

  • Depending on a personal support worker to come every day to perform intimate care duties, such as toileting and personal hygiene 
  • Needing expendable supplies such as surgical gloves, antiseptic wipes or catheters, to perform hygiene routines 
  • Being afraid to leave the house at the best of times, never mind now when a life-threatening virus is afoot 

“These are just a few of the scenarios that confront people with a variety of different types of disabilities in the current crisis,” says Dr. McColl. “Not only are people with disabilities particularly vulnerable during times of instability such as this, but difficult times can also substantially add to their challenges.” 

Exercise at home

Something critical that could add to their independence and well-being at home is exercise. As part of the advice on how to properly self-isolate, public health authorities have also been prescribing people a round of daily fitness whenever possible. However, there is one segment of the population that is not being properly addressed, according to Queen’s University researchers Amy Latimer-Cheung and Jennifer Tomasone (Kinesiology and Health Studies) 

The research duo, along with Kathleen Martin Ginis (University of British Columbia) have launched a free, evidence-informed, telephone-based physical activity coaching service for Canadians with a physical disability. 

Run by the Canadian Disability Participation Project (CDPP), Get In Motion provides Canadians with a physical disability an opportunity to speak with a Physical Activity Coach (PAC) who provides support to start or maintain an at-home physical activity program. Physical disabilities supported by Get in Motion include spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, stroke, cerebral palsy, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, post-polio syndrome, or an amputation. 

Support for staying healthy

“Canadians with a physical disability are high risk group for COVID-19,” says Dr. Tomasone (Kinesiology and Health Studies). “Self-isolation is critical to the well-being of individuals with a physical disability. With social distancing restrictions, being active is proving difficult for all Canadians, especially individuals with a physical disability.” 

Dr. Tomasone, a leading researcher with CDPP, says the coaches will assess what their clients currently have available in their home and work with them to set goals and create a plan. 

“A challenge for persons with a physical disability is often not knowing where to start or not realizing they have the tools right in their home to stay active,” she adds. “It’s also a great way to a create social connection among Canadians who are self-isolating.” 

Strength and endurance

Building and maintaining strength and endurance helps with everything from getting into and out of bed, cooking, cleaning, preparing for work and maintaining good hygiene. Physical activity coaching may be especially helpful for coming up with creative solutions to stay active for people with a physical disability whose in-home care worker is unable to meet clients in their home. 

Confronting COVID-19 Read more articles in this series

“Twenty per cent of the population is living with a disability, many of whom do not have a partner, spouse, or children for support,” says Dr. Latimer-Cheung, leading researcher with CDPP. “This means they are home and completely on their own. We need to place an emphasis on the health of persons with a physical disability as they are a high-risk group for contracting COVID-19 and other chronic conditions.” 

However, people with disabilities can teach us a great deal about adaptability, resourcefulness, ingenuity, and interdependence.  People with disabilities often act as a bell-weather group, facing difficult circumstances before the general population does.  As such, they can provide an opportunity to help policy makers and service providers to anticipate future needs. 

To sign up for Get in Motion, visit the website or email CDPPprojects@queensu.ca

Fostering community remotely

The Student Experience Office is helping students stay connected to Queen’s wherever they are.

pet stress relief sessions
The Student Experience Office has set up online pet stress relief sessions which also allow students a chance to share their experiences studying from home and to feel linked with the Queen’s community.

Queen’s University is well known for a strong sense of community shared among students. Even during COVID-19, the university is finding new ways to bring students together, no matter where they are in the world.

The Student Experience Office (SEO) – a unit in Student Affairs – is helping lead this effort by coordinating many innovative remote activities on several different digital platforms.

Confronting COVID-19 Read more articles in this series

“The heart of Queen’s is academics, but the student experience is also shaped by our lively campus community and when students connect with each other. Our team is working hard to help students remain connected to the Tricolour community even if they’re not able to be together on campus,” says Meg Ferriman, Director, Student Life.

Virtual community and stress relief

During these uncertain times, the SEO has created various opportunities for students to take a break and calm any anxieties they might be feeling. Their virtual pet stress relief sessions over Zoom have been especially popular. During these group calls, students have been on camera with their pets to spread some happiness with their peers. These Zoom sessions have also given them the chance to share their experiences studying from home and to feel linked with the Queen’s community.

Many other remote activities hosted by SEO also focus on fostering a greater sense of connection by promoting some fun and a bit of friendly competition. The Friday afternoon trivia challenges on Instagram Live bring many students together and they will soon have the opportunity to take part in a game on TikTok, where they can make a short video and challenge other people from Queen’s to recreate it.

SEO is currently planning for its summer activities. Keep up to date with their future events by following them on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Helping local organizations navigate economic hardship

Smith School of Business partners with City of Kingston to support area businesses impacted by COVID-19.

Downtown Kingston
The Kingston Region Business Support Network is set to provide local organizations with assistance to navigate economic challenges posed by COVID-19.

Smith School of Business at Queen’s University is joining forces with the City of Kingston and Kingston Economic Development to provide student and faculty resources to help local businesses, not-for-profits, and social enterprises navigate and survive the impact of COVID-19.

“Our local businesses and not-for-profits are integral to the character of Kingston and the truth is they are struggling right now,” says Kingston Mayor Bryan Paterson. “They need every resource we can muster as a community, and so I’m very proud to see this program come together and so quickly. I believe this will serve as an incredible resource for our community.”

Under the banner of the Kingston Region Business Support Network, the effort offers free services, including student time and skills, and community classroom learning sessions with faculty on topics designed for local business needs.

“We are grateful to be a part of the Kingston community and are ready to help local organizations as they cope with the extraordinary impact of COVID-19,” says Brenda Brouwer, Dean, Smith School of Business. “These are our neighbours, friends, employers of our students, and the businesses, stores, and services we rely on day-to-day. We want to contribute what we can to help them through this difficult time.”

Tapping into Student Resources

Through a matching platform, interested businesses can tap into the time, expertise, and skills of Smith students, which can range from research, strategic planning, and digital development, to sales, marketing, design thinking, and applying for grants. Once registered, businesses are contacted by a student consultant to confirm specific needs and to match with appropriate resources.

Participating students come from across Smith’s programs, from undergraduate to professional masters and graduate level research programs, and bring a diverse range of skills and experience suited to assisting businesses small and large. Each student consultant is supported by a Smith faculty member.

Confronting COVID-19 Read more articles in this series

“Kingston is tremendously blessed to have the wealth of talent and expertise within our post-secondary institutions at Queen’s and St. Lawrence College,” says Donna Gillespie, Chief Executive Officer, Kingston Economic Development. “During these incredibly challenging business times, leveraging these assets and supporting our business community together is paramount to address immediate needs and how we, as a community can support and prepare businesses for the path to recovery.”

Community classrooms with experts

As part of Kingston Region Business Support Effort, Smith School of Business faculty and instructors will also host free webinars designed specifically for regional businesses to help tackle their day-to-day challenges.

The initial online Community Classroom Learning Sessions will take place on April 22 and April 29. Peter Gallant, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Strategy, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship will lead the first webinar entitled Cashflow During Coronavirus: Strategy and Tactics for Business Survival and Recovery in the Age of COVID-19. The second, entitled Anticipating the New Normal: Critical Changes to Plan Today will be led by Ken Wong, Associate Professor and Distinguished Professor of Marketing.

Registration for these sessions and information about future sessions can be found on the website. Planned topics will include negotiation with banks and creditors, and innovating and pivoting.

“The efforts being made by people and organizations across the Kingston region to respond to the challenges brought on by COVID-19 are inspiring,” says Patrick Deane, Queen’s Principal and Vice-Chancellor. “I am especially proud of our faculty, staff, and students who have been engaged on healthcare’s front lines, assisting local businesses, and contributing crucial research and development expertise to help our community through this difficult period.” 

Lending a helping hand

An interdisciplinary team of Queen’s researchers and industry partners have mobilized to formulate hand sanitizer for Kingston hospitals

Graduate student tests a sample of hand sanitizer
Department of Chemistry graduate student Hailey Poole takes samples from a prototype batch of sanitizer.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to worldwide shortages of personal protective equipment and, very early on, products like hand sanitizer. This has a great impact on hospitals where these products are critical to limiting the spread of the virus, especially for frontline health care workers and patients.

A team of Queen’s researchers from the Departments of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering along with GreenCentre Canada have partnered with Kingston Health Sciences Centre and Tri-Art Manufacturing (Kingston) to develop hand sanitizer. Having just received Health Canada approval, the team will use three sites (two at the university and one at GreenCentre Canada) to make 300 litres of product per week to help meet the needs of Kingston hospitals.

“Our health care professionals have enough to worry about at the moment and should not have to be concerned about rationing hand sanitizer as we try to ‘flatten the curve,’” says Richard Oleschuk, Head, Department of Chemistry. “We know that we are not going to be in the long-term business of supplying hand sanitizer, as eventually supply will be brought online to meet demand. However, we felt that our interdisciplinary team had the skill set and infrastructure to make a difference in the short term.”

The World Health Organization has approved two formulation recipes (ethanol and isopropanol) for sanitizer. To create the isopropanol recipe the team is producing, large amounts of isopropanol (commonly known as rubbing alcohol) needs to be mixed with smaller amounts of water, hydrogen peroxide, and glycerin, in exactly the right proportions. The mix then needs to sit for 72 hours so that it can sterilize its own container.

While production of hand sanitizer is not a complicated process, it involves the use of chemicals that can be hazardous if not handled correctly. To make the isopropanol sanitizer, the team at Queen’s needed to develop a process that ensured quality control of the product, but still maintained social distancing rules at each of the three sites. They developed a “buddy system,” in which a second individual acts to monitor each and every chemical addition/volume added to the mix, so that the integrity of each batch is maintained.

“At this unprecedented time, it is important that the university and Kingston community work together to ensure our citizens remain healthy and safe,” says Patrick Deane, Principal and Vice-Chancellor. “I am proud of our researchers and our community partners for both their resourcefulness and initiative undertaking this project.”

Confronting COVID-19 Read more articles in this series

The team’s protocol was developed in collaboration with Queen’s Environmental Health and Safety, who are also essential in transporting the raw materials and finished sanitizer to and from the formulation sites. A training video was also created, so that the students, faculty and staff involved in formulations could learn the same formulation process.

“I applaud the innovation and creativity of our researchers and industry partners in addressing these critical shortages,” says Kimberly Woodhouse, Interim Vice-Principal (Research).  “This project shows the strength of the Queen’s research community in mobilizing their expertise and resources to deal with pressing global challenges.”

While the team hopes not to be in the hand sanitizer business for long, they are thankful for the opportunity to be able to support the needs of Kingston hospitals and for the contributions of the Queen’s faculties and Physical Plant Services in this effort.

A team effort for dissertation defence

A student in the Department of History was one of the first ever at Queen's to defend her dissertation remotely.

Photo of Sanober Umar after successfully defending her dissertation over a video conference on Microsoft Teams
Sanober Umar after successfully defending her dissertation over a video conference on Microsoft Teams.

Queen’s has had graduate degree programs since 1889, but is still having new firsts in its approach to graduate education. Over the past few weeks, the university has held its first remote defences of theses and dissertations. One of these defences was for Sanober Umar, who on April 6 became the first PhD candidate in the Queen’s Department of History to defend her dissertation using Microsoft Teams.

Nine people joined the video conference, including Umar, her committee members, a facilitator, and a staff member from IT Services for support. Most were in Kingston, but one person joined from New York City and another from Halifax.

"Even though it was a momentous occasion, I felt surprisingly calm going into my defence. Mainly because I received so much support from Barrington Walker and Saadia Toor, my supervisors; Adnan Hussain, Graduate Chair in the Department of History; and Betsy Donald, Associate Dean in the School of Graduate Studies. Because of their help, I was able to focus on preparing and didn't have to worry about whether the new situation would affect my defence," says Umar. "The advisors at the Ban Righ Centre, who have provided me with so much support throughout my time at Queen's, also helped to keep me calm in the days before the exam."

A successful remote defence

Shortly after learning that classes were transitioning to remote delivery, Umar says she was contacted by Hussain, who let her and the other graduate students in the department know that there were plans in the works for holding defences and exams remotely. The School of Graduate Studies (SGS) also reached out with the same message. “I never had to worry if my defence or degree would be delayed,” Umar says.

Making sure no technical glitches got in the way, David Smith, a staff member in IT Services at Queen’s, stayed on the video call for the duration. All the committee members were also eager to make sure that the defence could focus on Umar’s dissertation rather than whether everyone’s technology was working properly. So they all agreed to join the virtual meeting half an hour early to sort out any potential issues.

Typically, successful defences end with a celebration of the accomplishments of the student. While there could be no in-person gathering, the facilitator of the defence did bring out balloons and a congratulations sign to recognize Umar’s achievement. As her dissertation studies global Islamophobia in the second half of the twentieth century, Umar appreciated having this light-hearted note after discussing such a serious topic for three hours.

Best practices for remote thesis examinations

As Queen’s continues to practice physical distancing, it will rely on this remote format for administering graduate exams and defences. And SGS is providing support and guidance for all students and departments. It has put together a guide to best practices for remote exams which were followed during Umar’s defence, helping to ensure it went off without a hitch.

“Queen’s is one of the first schools in Canada to compile best practices for remote thesis examinations. And we have already seen many departments put them to use as they hold their first-ever remote defences,” says Betsy Donald, Associate Dean, School of Graduate Studies. “I served as the facilitator for Umar’s defence, and it was a pleasure to see her thrive in the remote setting.”

To read the SGS best practices guide for remote thesis examinations, see their website.

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