Opinion: It is possible to end chronic homelessness if we act now

By Dr. Stephen Hwang, MAP Director


As a physician and researcher on homelessness, I’m a witness to the intersecting health crises that affect people who don’t have adequate housing. COVID-19 is only one of them. For years, my colleagues and I have treated infections and overdoses, chronic diseases, injuries and mental health issues among people experiencing homelessness. We have been applying Band-Aids, addressing only the most visible symptoms of a continuing crisis.

The pandemic has forced us to confront the consequences of having allowed homelessness to persist in our cities for far too long. Canadians living on low incomes in crowded conditions have been disproportionally affected by COVID-19. In Toronto alone, more than 500 people experiencing homelessness have been infected with the coronavirus. As case numbers rise and the colder months move us indoors, adequate shelter is more important than ever.

We have seen rapid action on homelessness over the past six months that would have been previously unthinkable. Municipal and provincial governments, health care and service providers, public-health and community agencies have undertaken extraordinary and costly emergency efforts to prevent COVID-19 from spreading rapidly in shelters and encampments. Empty hotels have been quickly turned into temporary housing. Facilities to allow people to safely self-isolate have been created in a matter of weeks. Cities are committing to build new modular housing for people experiencing homelessness.

And now, in last week’s Throne Speech, the federal government announced a new aspiration – to entirely eliminate chronic homelessness in Canada. We must seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity to move beyond short-term, crisis solutions and make lasting change, meet the needs of our communities and end chronic homelessness in our cities. It’s possible, necessary and the right thing to do.

Unity Health physician who worked in Sierra Leone during Ebola helps build model to project local COVID-19 numbers

Infectious disease physician Dr. Sharmistha Mishra experienced the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic as a flashback. Everywhere she looked were echoes of Ebola and her work in Sierra Leone.

She saw the crucial role nurses play as the main connecters to the patients. She saw the fear, heightened this time because the disease was at our doorstep. She saw a grounding principle of her practice come to life once again: we will always know more tomorrow than we do today.

“As Infectious Disease practitioners, we live in the world of uncertainty,” said Dr. Mishra, who is also a scientist at MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions and a mathematical modeler. “That’s part of our training, and that’s so much of what an epidemic is. We can transfer knowledge from other epidemics but there is always an adaptive nature to our approach.”

To prepare for that uncertainty, hospital leadership approached Dr. Mishra in February with a question she, as a mathematical modeler and infectious disease specialist, was uniquely suited to tackle: Can we project how the pandemic will unfold in the hospital’s two acute care sites, St. Joseph’s and St. Michael’s?

In the end, the work by Dr. Mishra and her team, published today in CMAJ Open, would be described by leaders as an ‘eerily accurate’ depiction of how the surge unfolded at the two sites.

Though mathematical models were common in the beginning of the pandemic – and still are – they were made with a provincial, national or global lens. None, before Dr. Mishra’s, was tailor made to Unity Health to help with a local response.

“Our leadership wanted to be as data-driven as we could about this and that’s what they want going forward,” she said. “We want science to drive our response, and that’s what we did in the first wave.”

The project started with the team trying to determine the simplest model that would capture how this disease could spread. This would help them predict how many COVID patients would potentially be admitted, and how many would have severe enough symptoms to be in intensive care.

Her team then set out to find data that could inform the model and project the answer to their initial question. They pulled existing studies, historical data on pandemics, the hospitals’ data on admissions and bed capacity, and health administrative from ICES to understand what the catchment areas of the two sites looked like.

The biology of COVID-19 and how long the virus could be passed on also informed their modelling. They estimated its severity rate and the percentage of people that needed to be hospitalized. The Decision Support team, and Infection Prevention and Control helped the scientists pull numbers and ensure the model made sense for the network.

“The data was changing day by day,” Dr. Mishra recalled. The first iteration of their model was built in four days. Then the team took another three weeks to nail down the science and offer more robust scenarios for the hospital to plan its approach.

The most reliable projections in mathematical models are those based on the most recent data. The projections the team made based on the prior two or three weeks would fit the next two or three weeks, and so on.

“A key lesson in this exercise was that we had to constantly recalibrate because so many things were changing,” Dr. Mishra said. “If we had used only early data, our projections would have been very different.”

The modelling helped the hospital respond quickly and plan patient flow accordingly. Dr. Mishra said there’s always ways for modelling to improve, and she feels ready to have an even better approach for a second wave of the disease.

“We now know some more of the nuances that affect COVID-19 risk, like congregate settings, age groups, and social determinants of health. I feel like we’re in a much better place now to be more adaptive in our modelling as well as our response.”

Dr. Mishra also hopes her team’s work can be used by other hospitals to project their own numbers. Everything they’ve created is open source and generalizable.

“That’s another similarity from my work in Ebola that I’ve seen with COVID-19: everything has become less about the individual and more about the collective.”

Shaming young people as party animals ignores their actual COVID-19 risks

Not a week goes by without seeing media coverage and public health messages taking young Canadians to task for partying.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic amped up in March, footage of young adults skirting the guidelines for a good time has earned admonishments from everyone, including the World Health Organization, deputy public health officer Dr. Howard Njoo and actor Ryan Reynolds.

The latest target? Ontario’s Western University students, as recent coverage of group socializing earned widespread online mockery; a confirmed outbreak this week grounded campus activities to a halt last Thursday.

For Dr. Farah Mawani, a social and psychiatric epidemiologist with Unity Health Toronto, it’s also important that public health messaging looks at the social inequities affecting certain populations of young people.

“Some of the messaging is based on assumptions that may not be true,” she said. “I think we really need to improve our understanding of the context and mental health of youth, as well as recognize that they have a wide range of experiences … we need to put more energy into thinking about what the unique needs of youth are.”

Mawani listed four areas she sees social inequities increasing young people’s COVID-19 risks that should be researched and addressed.

Canada’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force invests almost $3M in two major MAP projects

Two MAP scientists have been awarded nearly $3 million in federal grants in support of research projects focused on improving our understanding how COVID-19 affects people experiencing homelessness, as well as children and families.

The funding is part of a $12.4 million funding announcement from Canada’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force (CITF), in collaboration with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

The COVENANT Study (COVID-19 Cohort Study of People Experiencing Homelessness in Toronto), led by MAP Director Dr. Stephen Hwang, received $1.9 million in funding. This study will reveal the patterns and trajectory of COVID-19 in the homeless population, and will help policy-makers and service providers better understand what works to prevent, detect and manage COVID-19 in this high-risk group.

The TARGet Kids! COVID-19 Study of Children and Families, led by MAP scientist Dr. Jonathon Maguire and Dr. Catherine Birken from the Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), received $975,000 in funding. The study will answer important questions about COVID-19 community transmission, risk factors for infection, and disease severity among children and families. This study is also funded by Fast Grants, the St. Michael’s Hospital AFP Innovation Fund, and the St. Michael’s Hospital Foundation.

The Government of Canada launched the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force (CITF) in late April 2020 to track the spread of the virus in both the general population and priority populations in Canada. The Task Force also aims to shed light on immune responses to SARS-CoV-2 in a diversity of communities, age brackets, populations, and occupational groups across the nation. To generate this information, the Task Force is drawing on experts from universities and hospitals across Canada and working closely with provincial and territorial public health officials.

Dr. Naomi Thulien receives St. Michael’s Hospital career award

Dr. Naomi Thulien has received the Lucy Boguski Career Award in Transitioning Youth Out of Homelessness.  

The primary purpose of this four-year award is to help build a program of research dedicated to transitioning youth out of homelessness. The award was created at St. Michael’s Hospital and Thulien is the inaugural recipient.  

Thulien is an affiliate scientist at St. Michael’s Hospital MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions and an assistant professor at the McMaster University School of Nursing. These funds will allow her to devote more time to research, including the supervision and mentorship of graduate students with a keen interest in understanding how to sustain youth exits out of homelessness.  

“I am committed to conducting community-based research that advocates for equitable social and economic inclusion for young people who have experienced homelessness,” says Thulien. “I am also really excited to be supervising four promising graduate students this fall. All will be conducting critical qualitative health research with young people who are experiencing or have experienced homelessness.”