March 26, 2020

UCalgary researchers inform City’s COVID-19 pandemic response

Data scientists track spread of COVID-19 in Alberta and advise on best interventions to flatten the curve; digital forum March 27

It’s been 71 days since the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Canada, and as cases continue to climb, now into the thousands, scientists are racing to produce information needed to slow the spread.

When Dr. Tyler Williamson, PhD, with the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) received the call from UCalgary leadership that the City of Calgary needed Calgary and Alberta-centric data to inform the municipal response to the pandemic, he jumped into action.

“I reached out to my colleagues at the Centre for Health Informatics (CHI) on a Saturday morning and they just got to work,” says Williamson, CHI associate director. “We’re very fortunate to have a team of highly skilled data scientists at the university in a time like this. They were poised and ready to tackle this threat.”

  • Photo above: Tyler Williamson presents at the March 6 event A new Decade in Public Health. Williamson is one of the lead researchers involved in tracking the COVID-19 pandemic in Alberta.

Using data from publicly available sources such as the Government of Alberta, the Public Health Agency of Canada and Johns Hopkins University, the researchers are exploring a provincial breakdown of when and where the virus is spreading, and comparing Alberta’s data to what is happening elsewhere in the world, all through the lens of different public health interventions in various jurisdictions.

Williamson and his team are also working closely with their colleagues at Alberta Health and Alberta Health Services to predict when the peak of the curve will occur, how many cases we may see at the provincial and municipal levels, and what the demand will be on the health system.

“All decisions need to be made with data,” says Williamson. “When we’re talking about decisions of this magnitude, where lives and livelihoods hang in the balance, you’ve got to have the best information possible to inform the people leading our response.”

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi agrees. “The only way that we can overcome the challenge before us, and really, any challenge, is to follow evidence-based decision-making,” says Nenshi. “To do that, it is critical to have great evidence. In Calgary, we’re incredibly fortunate to have the benefit of the great research from the teams at the University of Calgary. The work they’re doing to understand the spread of this virus in our province will lay the groundwork for the policy decisions we need.”

Williamson will present his findings at COVID-19: Anatomy of a pandemic, a digital forum presented by the O’Brien Institute this Friday, March 27, at noon.

Fighting disease outbreaks with data

Fortunately, Canada doesn’t have to start from scratch when it comes to fighting COVID-19. Countries in Asia and Europe have been managing COVID-19 outbreaks since late 2019, and offer important lessons to inform Canada’s response.

Working to decipher these lessons is Dr. Nishan Sharma, EdD, with the O’Brien Institute’s W21C Research and Innovation Centre, who will also take part in the March 27 forum.

Nishan Sharma will speak at the COVID-19: Anatomy of a Pandemic digital forum on March 27.

Nishan Sharma will speak at the COVID-19: Anatomy of a Pandemic digital forum on March 27.

“The measures we’ve taken, including promoting physical distancing, closing schools and daycares, and limiting travel, could be effective based on what we know from other countries,” says Sharma. “But we need to keep going and consider other measures, which is why Tyler’s work is so important.” 

Sharma says action is needed to protect vulnerable people, including those experiencing homelessness or living on reserves, where close quarters and a lack of health care resources could cause the virus to spread more rapidly.

This week The City announced it will start moving some homeless Calgarians into hotel rooms in order to reduce the population in shelters, with Mayor Nenshi saying the possibility of COVID-19 spreading through the shelters is the "greatest public health issue we're facing today."

Tracking an outbreak provides unique insight into the handling of a crisis, and with this insight Williamson and Sharma both say they are impressed with the response from The City and the Province.

“Under the leadership of Alberta's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Henshaw, MD, the province has been proactively implementing public health interventions and making informed decisions,” says Sharma.

UCalgary leadership, including UCalgary President Ed McCauley and Vice-President (Research) William Ghali have also been key in fostering university-led innovation to tackle the COVID-19 crisis, he says. 

Williamson adds, “In a time when science often comes under attack, having leaders in our province who are willing to look to the University for support and knowledge is why Alberta is going to ultimately make it through this crisis.” 

Read more about the COVID-19: Anatomy of a pandemic digital forum series here.

Nishan Sharma is a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health and education lead for the W21C Research and Innovation Centre, an initiative within the O’Brien Institute focused on improving the safety and quality of our health systems.

Tyler Williamson is an associate professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the Cumming School of Medicine and a member of the O’Brien Institute of Public Health and the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute.

COVID-19 resources