AS a COVID-19 vaccine draws closer, Simon Fraser University researchers Diane Gromala, Chris Shaw and a team of graduate students are working to identify those who’ll need vaccinations first—individuals who the Centre for Disease Control identifies as most vulnerable and at-risk.
The team is drawing on extensive pioneering work with health technologies to determine who and where these groups are, and how to ensure that these vulnerable populations have priority access to vaccines.
Their work is being carried out as part of Project ABC: Authorization, booking and coordination of widespread serological testing and immunization, an initiative of Canada’s Digital Technology Supercluster, which received more than $4 million in federal funding this past summer. The project collaborators are tasked with determining the most efficient processes for a vaccine rollout and to ensure that all Canadians are represented and included.
The project is being led by Cambian Business Services Inc., in partnership with LifeLabs, IBM Canada, WELL Health, Tickit Health, Providence Health Care, and SFU.
“The goal of the project is to integrate existing processes and organize assessments and scheduling services that will enable an optimal and efficient vaccine delivery,” says Bruce Forde, CEO of Cambian Business Services Inc. “We are working to prevent bottlenecks and pave the way for nearly 80,000 Canadians daily to be vaccinated against COVID-19 once a vaccine is available.”
“Vulnerable groups will need to be reached first, but we also need to reach those who may be less visible and vulnerable and at-risk,” says Gromala, a distinguished professor in the School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT) and director of SFU’s Pain Studies Lab.
“This includes those who live with at-risk family members, or who work with those who are at-risk, those whose first language is not English, people whose immune systems have been compromised by long-term conditions or short-term treatment or exposure, people who live far from urban areas, and others.”
The project’s efforts to ensure prioritization is efficiencies will build on the policies put in place at the start of the pandemic, to see that vulnerable populations and health care workers would have vaccine access priority, Gromala notes. It will also track any potential adverse events after a vaccination.
Gromala says the solution being developed by Project ABC will also forecast demand and ensure venues have the required tests and vaccines available—meeting logistical needs.
International student researchers on the SFU team are also bringing expertise in addressing health-related cultural differences.
Bhairavi Warke, from India’s Pune University, is the project’s manager, while Amal Vincent, who worked in the Indian Railway’s electric engineering division, is its data manager. While at SFU, Warke created systems to help patients better track their pain data, while Vincent developed an online system enabling parents to track children’s sleep disorders.
The team’s solution will be piloted by a local health authority and will include testing with hospitals as well as vulnerable populations in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side.
A pioneer in health technologies
Gromala and Shaw are experts in human-computer interaction. Gromala’s decades-long research focuses on virtual reality to creating home health solutions for people who struggle to manage their chronic conditions, from chronic pain and arthritis to addiction and cancer.
Gromala’s work involves partnering with pain doctors, neuroscientists, patients and their caregivers. “Chronic conditions overwhelm our healthcare system, but technologies that are smart, well-designed, and strategically deployed can extend the capacity of our national healthcare,” says Gromala.
Working in the Silicon Valley at Apple Computer in the 1980s, Gromala learned how crucial ease-of-use is – for patients, for their caregivers, for their doctors—something reflected in her many years of research. “When you don’t feel well, or if you’re in an ER, there’s no room for confusing text, icons or buttons.”
For Gromala, the work has a personal connection, as she lives with chronic pain. Her mother is also at high-risk as her mother lives in a Lower Mainland care home.