Dec. 3, 2020

Putting evidence into action — Calgary researcher named one of 5 leaders of national COVID-19 network

Katrina Milaney will inform federal government on pandemic’s impact on poor, racialized and other vulnerable groups
Dr. Katrina Milaney speaks at A new Decade in Public Health at the Glenbow Museum on March 6, 2020.
Dr. Katrina Milaney speaks at A new Decade in Public Health at the Glenbow Museum on March 6, 2020.

Dr. Katrina Milaney, PhD, has been named one of the five research leads of a national network that has been working tirelessly since the onset of the pandemic to support the Canadian government in its COVID-19 response.

Established in March 2020 with the support of Mona Nemer, the federal government’s chief science adviser, CanCOVID is a network of more than 2,500 researchers from across Canada and across disciplines, committed to researching and better understanding the pandemic.

  • Photo above: Katrina Milaney speaks at A new Decade in Public Health at the Glenbow Museum on March 6, 2020.

“This network was borne from a need to quickly and efficiently synthesize the latest COVID-19 research and, from there, provide top levels of government the best available evidence as they manage this crisis,” says Milaney, a member of the Cumming School of Medicine’s O’Brien Institute for Public Health, an associate professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences, and lead for the psychosocial and behavioural sciences arm of the network. 

Using digital networking tools, members collaborate across critical COVID-19 research and development areas, from clinical trials and testing, to diagnostics and treatment, and provide the Government of Canada a line of sight on COVID-19 science and research happening across the country.

"CanCOVID is an asset to Canada's COVID-19 strategy — a network established to create connections and collaborations among scientists in the face of this global pandemic,” says Dr. William Ghali, University of Calgary vice-president (research). “Dr. Milaney is a leader at the University of Calgary, and an ideal person to lead important national collaborations in CanCOVID."

In her role, Milaney, also a member of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, plans to address the disparities brought to light by the virus, which she says can sometimes be overlooked. 

“It’s important to recognize not everyone is able to mask at work, or take paid sick days, or even follow the guidelines for isolating while sick at home,” she says. 

She points to recent research showing that in Toronto, 79 per cent of people contracting COVID-19 identify with a racialized group and 48 per cent live in lower-income households.

“Poor and racialized groups are absolutely being disproportionately affected by COVID-19,” she says. 

The pandemic is also forcing more people into vulnerable, low-income positions.

In Canada about a third of people who were employed have lost their jobs or experienced reduced work hours, and globally poverty rates could reach highs not seen for 50 years as a result of this pandemic, says Milaney.

Milaney also points to the significant increases in opioid overdoses, which were in decline pre-pandemic.

If there is a silver lining, it is that COVID-19 has shone a light on vulnerability, she says.

There are those of us working in public health that have been arguing for a very long time that social inequities are public health problems. This pandemic has made that more evident than ever.

Being in a CanCOVID leadership position, with the ear of government, is an opportunity, Milaney believes, to address these issues at a national level.

Organizing the network into thematic groups better enables researchers to efficiently assess and synthesize knowledge — providing policy-makers with critical scientifically vetted information when they need it most, says Dr. Julia Zarb, PhD, the academic and managing director of CanCOVID, and an assistant professor at University of Toronto.

“When you're in a rapid response situation you need timely access to the best available information to inform that response,” she says.

The other four thematic groups and leads are:

  • Biomedical Research, Engineering and Science
    Dr. Louis Flamand, PhD, chair, Department of Microbiology, Infectious Diseases and Immunology, Faculty of Medicine, Université Laval.
  • Policy and Economics
    Dr. Sue Horton, PhD, professor, School of Public Health & Health Systems, professor, School of Economics, University of Waterloo.
  • Public Health and Epidemiology
    Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, PhD, professor, Community Health & Epidemiology, College of Medicine, University of Saskatchewan.
  • Clinical Research
    Lead not yet named.

Next steps for Milaney include collaborating and sharing information with COVID-19 task forces across Canada, and developing a plan to disseminate research on various human aspects of the pandemic, such as the mental health of frontline workers, best practices for reducing social isolation and loneliness during lockdowns, and the unique complexities for vulnerable groups such as low-income workers, racialized communities, single parent families and people with disabilities.