COVID-19 research successes, and return to research

Exciting news was announced Thursday this week that three of our CoM researchers and their teams have received funding for work on COVID-19 from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Congratulations to Dr. Joyce Wilson, Dr. Kerry Lavender and Dr. Cory Neudorf on their successful applications!

Each is leading, respectively, projects that will: investigate the re-purposing of currently approved drugs to treat COVID-19 patients; rapidly evaluate some highly promising therapeutics against COVID-19; and help prepare for future outbreaks by gathering information on the best interventions public health officers have developed across the country. This last project, led by Dr. Neudorf, is also being funded by the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation.

You can see the full announcement with more information about each project on our website.

Our Office of the Vice-Dean Research (OVDR) at the CoM has provided support to our researchers, with a total of $120,000 in rapid response funds—half from the OVDR and half from the CoM’s Respiratory Research Centre—to catalyze small-scale, time-sensitive research projects focused on contributing to the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Congratulations to the recipients of this funding, who are listed on the OVDR website.

We are also working closely with the university on steps to bring some research activities and researchers back to campus. There have certainly been a large number of requests from researchers to return. We continue a very robust review process to ensure we consider applications carefully to maintain the safety of all our people accessing campus facilities.

I know many of our researchers are feeling significant urgency to return to campus. In my role on the university’s Pandemic Response and Recovery Team (PRT), I have been part of work to review these requests against provincial requirements; the return-to-research framework has been developed by the university alongside the Saskatchewan Re-Open plan, of course.

Those who can work remotely will continue to do so. The university needs your co-operation in this regard, so that limited resources can be best used to support necessary and critical on-campus research and teaching and learning work.

More information from the university can be found at:


What COVID has taught us about public health capacity

Guest blog by Dr. Cory Neudorf

Dr. Neudorf is a professor in the Department of Community Health and Epidemiology at the USask College of Medicine, and a former chief medical health officer for Saskatoon

The first half of 2020 has proven to be one of huge challenge for the health system and society at large. However, it may yet prove to be a year of huge opportunity born out of tragedy and resiliency. As I write this, COVID-19 has stretched health system capacity in many jurisdictions. Interventions to slow the virus have disrupted the economy, while disproportionately impacting the most vulnerable in society and those working in health care and other sectors deemed essential.

Global pandemics have been overcome in the past, but both the scale of COVID’s impact and the response to date have been unprecedented in most peoples’ lifetimes. However, part of the health system was established and specifically trained to do outbreak prevention and management in the wake of pandemics of cholera and influenza in past centuries. The public health system was expanded and entrusted with learning what causes these outbreaks. Public health was funded to train and hire the staff to deal with outbreaks, and given legislative authority to act in the best interests of public safety, well-being and security through broad measures such as quarantine, mass testing, immunization and contact tracing and prevention. In short, public health is here to ensure we are not left vulnerable through delays in decision making in the critical early stages of a pandemic.

Between large outbreaks, these same approaches are used to manage smaller-scale outbreaks and prevent more common communicable diseases, which together improves population health. In the past 100 years, a legacy of improvements  through public health have followed, including routine childhood immunization, workplace safety laws, health inspection of our food, water, air and soil, family planning, and efforts to improve healthy behaviours and the social determinants of health (see History of Public Health – 12 Great Achievements).

One improvement was the creation of pandemic plans at all levels of government, with the mandate to update them continuously as they are tested over time. These reviews resulted in recommendations to invest in stockpiles of personal protective equipment (PPE), ongoing training of staff in the appropriate use of these supplies, and improvements to institutional infection prevention, control processes and infrastructure. As well, strategic improvements have included strengthening public health and primary care systems with adequate surge capacity, and making the pandemic response lead role of the medical health officer clear through legislation.

However, with pressures mounting to cut taxes and shrink budgets, public health and other community investments in prevention may be at risk. Ironically, neglect in funding prevention and the determinants of health can in turn add to the pressures on the acute care system and the need to respond to other health and social downstream effects. Recommendations to re-invest in public health and other evidence-informed upstream health and social programs have been strong and consistent in the wake of smaller crises like water-born outbreaks in Walkerton and North Battleford, SARS (2002/3) and H1N1 (2009/10), and have resulted in small gains in some cases. However, the most recent rounds of budget cuts and re-organization across the country have reversed these gains in many provinces, leaving us vulnerable once again. (See The Weakening of Public Health)

The net effect is Canada has experienced mixed results in our response to the COVID crisis so far. While some residual legacy products of past crises have stood us well, cutbacks and re-organizations have had unintended negative consequences on our ability to be as prepared as we may have hoped in parts of the country. The Public Health Agency of Canada and the Chief Public Health Officer position created in the wake of SARS have certainly helped us respond to COVID nationally. Investments in Saskatchewan in better information systems for communicable disease surveillance and more inspections and immunizations have been helpful.

Thanks to a good initial response to public health measures, the first wave of COVID-19 has been blunted, giving the system time to prepare for a possible second wave or future stressors. Now is the time to prioritize investment in a strong and unified public health system. In the near future, public health must plan for heightened surveillance for signs of setbacks as we gradually loosen early restrictions, and respond with aggressive testing and contact tracing to contain new clusters and outbreaks. Later, a mass immunization program may be needed on the heels of the seasonal flu immunization campaign, with the spectre of a possible second wave of COVID.

Meanwhile, other essential public health services cannot be put on hold indefinitely, as this leaves us vulnerable to other outbreaks caused by low routine immunization levels, an overburdened outbreak control team, or delayed health inspections. Other gains in health promotion and social determinants of health need to continue. Public health and community partners need to also respond to the unintended consequences of the pandemic, including rising overdoses, increases in family violence and homelessness, setbacks in healthy living strategies, and health inequalities.

Now is the time to invest in prevention and surge capacity. We have been given the gift of time. Let’s not waste it.

Standing together against racism

My May 8 blog was about how the pandemic was hitting people in minority, under-served and disadvantaged groups harder than others, supported by research conducted by members of our own team here at the CoM. The pandemic was very much top-of-mind in that blog, as it has been for nearly three months.

In the past week, racism and its dire impact on the well-being of so many is the top story of our news outlets and top-of-mind for me, as it should be.

I want our Black learners and colleagues to know that their dean, their leaders, their colleagues, and many, many others, recognize the heavy toll in sadness, anger and despair of the way George Floyd died. For our Indigenous learners and colleagues, this is an all-too-familiar and heartbreaking situation.

I know that I do not have all the answers and that we need to do more as a college to eliminate racism from our workplace. But in this moment, I hope it helps in some small way to know that your College of Medicine stands with you.