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Campus Public Health team puts the community first

The Public Health Threats Committee quickly mobilized to help university respond to COVID-19
By: Michelle Grady
April 14, 2020
Ryerson campus on a sunny day

As the Public Health Threats Committee became aware of a novel coronavirus with potential significant global impact, the team made pandemic planning a priority.

By noon on Friday, March 13, Ryerson had issued a notice to the community that all classes would be moved online in response to public health agencies’ recommendations on COVID-19. But what seemed like a swift decision to some was the culmination of months of planning and hard work for the university’s Public Health Threats Committee, who had been in communication with sector partners and Toronto Public Health (TPH) since January.

As the team began to track the developments in China in January, they gathered the necessary resources to identify how a pandemic could affect the campus and what the response protocols would look like. “We started meeting every other week at first and then every week,” says Glenda Mallon, assistant-vice-president, Facilities Management and Development (FMD), who is acting as a committee co-chair with Allan MacDonald. “In the early days, there was judgment needed around getting people to take the situation seriously and plan accordingly, all while not causing a panic.”

Housed within FMD’s Environmental Health & Safety (EHS) team, the committee liaises with TPH to manage potential disease outbreaks on campus. They coordinate the university’s response to confirmed communicable disease cases and ensure that such diseases are managed under the direction of TPH. The team is also responsible for developing and sharing resources and information on public health threats that include everything from vermin to pandemics.

A previous iteration of the committee had existed a few years back, but the new committee officially came together in 2017. By 2018, the team developed terms of reference and one of the tasks they planned to tackle in 2020 was a pandemic response plan. “We wanted to put together information around how to respond when something is more global, like when people are travelling from these high profile places with communicable diseases,” says Mallon.

Jordan Tustin, assistant professor within the School of Occupational and Public Health and the team’s epidemiologist, identified just prior to the COVID-19 outbreak that a pandemic was coming. “She was looking at previous data around when outbreaks occur as they seem to be cyclic,” says Tanya Vlaskalin, the Public Health Threats Committee biosafety officer and TPH liaison. “She told us all that we should anticipate it and be proactive.” As a committee, the team began closely monitoring the progression of COVID-19 from the first mention of it in January.

“We understood the potential global impacts as it was a new virus with no vaccine and no known treatment and a completely susceptible population,” Tustin says. “As a committee, we discussed the potential for this virus to impact Toronto (whether as travel-related cases, an epidemic or the next pandemic) and how this could impact the Ryerson community. As such, we increased our efforts in mitigation strategies and pandemic planning for the university.”

Their timeline was accelerated as they watched the spread happen. Tustin says the team worked swiftly to expedite the updated plan, and started by reviewing the university’s 2009 pandemic plan that was created after H1N1. They then worked with Denise Campbell’s team at Community Safety & Security to put specific operational plans in place. “We did an exercise where we called the different units together to talk about business continuity,” says Mallon. “The amount of collaboration we had in coming up with a response to this was fantastic to see.” Vlaskalin agrees. “It was amazing that everyone shifted their priorities so quickly and made that time to really identify what business continuity looked like in their unit.”

“We were able to move to a complete virtual wellbeing service delivery model without a disruption in services in a matter of days,” says Allan MacDonald, committee member and executive director, Student Wellbeing. “I think the greatest opportunity in front of us will be contemplating a blended face-to-face/virtual model across the entire university. Once the immediacy of living through this pandemic passes and we move on to looking beyond tomorrow, the organizations which are able to use what they’ve learned to move forward in a person-centred way will be well-positioned for the future.”

All the while, the team was communicating daily with sector partners. “We were assessing how we would work as a sector to align challenges,” says Vlaskalin. “This was a challenge that required all of our advisers’ input.” The core committee members rely on the additional expertise of campus-wide advisers from the Ryerson executive team, Legal/Privacy, Communications and Public Relations, HR, Administration and Operations Management Communications, the Office of the Registrar, Student Affairs, and FMD.

Both Mallon and Vlaskalin share how invaluable their other two committee members have been. “Jordan can always decode and explain to us what’s happening. And Allan, with the fact that he runs the Ryerson Medical Centre and the work he does for students, they’ve both been the voice of the students for us.”

Mallon says that the next big challenge the team faces will be determining when the risk has passed and campus can resume normal function. “We continue to meet regularly virtually and monitor the advice we’re getting from TPH.”

This is one story in a series about how Ryerson University departments have successfully faced the challenges presented by COVID-19.


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