Research During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Research at St. Joe’s is not limited to our labs and offices – it occurs in almost every clinical space across our three campuses. Research is interdisciplinary and translational, utilizing the bench to bedside approach. The interconnectedness of clinicians and their patients with researchers and study participants has been one of our greatest strengths, though it does present challenges in the midst of a pandemic.
By January 2020, scientists at St. Joe’s virology research lab were paying close attention to the novel coronavirus that was spreading across Asia and moving into Europe. When the SARS-CoV-2 genome was first published, Dr. David Bulir designed a robust clinical test for the virus. His test – called an assay – would soon be used by several labs in Ontario, one of the many innovations to come out of our research laboratory.
Screening protocols were implemented on March 17, 2020
Staff across St. Joe’s worked under immense pressure to keep our Hospital running smoothly.
Realizing what was coming, The Research Institute administration team shifted to offsite work in advance of the Ontario government’s first lockdown mandate. Our executive team worked closely with McMaster University to develop and implement pandemic protocols for research. Ultimately, study recruitment was put on hold and research learners were affected.
On March 17, 2020, St. Joe’s implemented an active screening protocol and began to limit the premises to essential workers only. This also meant postponing elective surgeries and halting visitors in an effort to protect vulnerable patients under our care.
St. Joe’s worked quickly to establish a new COVID-19 care unit. The Hospital maintains a stockpile of personal protective equipment (PPE), but it was uncertain how long these precious supplies would last in the event of a massive surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations. Similarly, laboratory testing supplies were dwindling as manufacturers struggled to meet global demand.
Through the unpredictable first wave, our community rallied in support of health care workers by sending in donations of meals, coffee, gifts, and PPE supplies. Our Hospital received more than $700,000 in donations to cover the costs of our most pressing research, equipment, and supply needs. Local distilleries gifted us with hand sanitizer that they created using the WHO formulation and our research partners in Guangzhou, China managed to send a large shipment of N95 masks and gloves to our Hospital, along with a message of hope and solidarity.
As cases began to climb, some researchers worked to publish urgently needed guidance. Dr. Catherine Clase published a review of 100 years of evidence that indicated the efficacy of multi-layer cloth masks. Dr. Derek Chu’s comprehensive review of existing literature supporting the use of face masks, eye protection, and physical distancing – funded by the World Health Organization – was published in The Lancet. As well, physical therapist and researcher, Dr. Michelle Kho, collaborated on a new set of guidelines for performing physical therapy during a pandemic.
With visitor restrictions, St. Joe’s clinicians and research coordinators played a supportive role, comforting patients and their families through virtual means.
Like many other sectors, health care and research went digital. Virtual meetings allowed key stakeholders to communicate without the added risk of spreading the virus. Research coordinators connected with study participants through digital means, allowing them to forgo an in-preson research visit. As the pandemic continued, we found new ways to engage with our community, such as bringing events like Celebrate Research to virtual platforms.
Most importantly, our researchers and clinical partners have persevered through what has been perhaps the most challenging year of their careers. The stories presented here are only a small snapshot of the dedication, commitment, and bravery of everyone who has worked to ensure St. Joe’s can continue its Mission of Discovery.