Sept. 24, 2020

Six months of data-based decision-making key to City of Calgary’s pandemic response

World-renowned health and data experts step up to support community in time of need

On March 15, 2020, Mayor Naheed Nenshi signed a declaration of a state of local emergency for The City of Calgary, kicking into gear Calgary’s COVID-19 response. The mayor emphasized that all citizens have a role to play in the response: "I always say the most Calgary question of all is the simple question — how can I help?" 

For the UCalgary COVID-19 Data Analytics Advisory Group, help meant teaming up to examine the available data about COVID-19 and the virus’s steady march across the globe. The advisory group came together to assess how public health measures mitigate spread of the virus, and share those insights with city leaders.

“This is motivated by our desire to give relevant and timely information to our colleagues who are making decisions about the pandemic that are influencing all of us,” says Dr. Nishan Sharma, EdD, education lead at W21C. “Our approach has been to track the data — cases, deaths, testing — as rigorously as we could, and report on the changes in the data as interventions have been put in place and then removed.”

“In the early days of the pandemic, we didn’t have access to a lot of credible information,” says Tom Sampson, chief of the Calgary Emergency Management Agency at The City of Calgary. “Now, we await the daily information from the University of Calgary. We use it to provide information to council and to make policy decisions that impact 1.2 million Calgarians.”

  • Photo above: Chief Tom Sampson and translator provide a COVID-19 briefing on March 27, 2020. Image courtesy The City of Calgary

Six months in, what have we learned?

Looking back at the past six months, what does the data tell us?

Dr. Tyler Williamson, PhD, says there aren’t many surprises. “The models told us that if we social distance, limit contacts, and so on, the cases will decrease and they did,” says Williamson, associate professor in the Cumming School of Medicine. “The data are telling us now that we are doing an OK job at limiting the spread of the virus. Not perfect, but all around OK.”

“What we have learned and passed on to The City is that the philosophy should be that this will be with us until there is a vaccine,” says Sharma. “Driving the cases to our early goals, like the single-digit new cases in early June under heavy restrictions, may not make sense economically, or be sustainable with societal fatigue.”

According to Sharma, despite how a country performed in the first six months of the pandemic, the data indicates there is no keeping the ‘second wave’ from happening. “Plenty of places have had rises in cases close to, equal to, or even greater than the first wave,” he says. “Croatia, the Czech Republic, France, Israel, and Peru are examples of bigger second waves. Enough time had passed in those countries to lift restrictions.”

Sharma and Williamson emphasize that there’s no "crystal ball"-type model that can tell us exactly what’s going to happen next — instead, we can look back at the data and assess what worked, and act accordingly.

The power of data in a time of uncertainty

When determining what "act accordingly" means, many citizens are looking to the data on the task force’s online data tracker. “The pandemic has shown the power that data holds, and it thrust on us the need to find better ways to share data,” says Williamson.

Being mindful of the power of data is critical to how the group uses the tracker and advises The City. “It’s easy to be sensational, either ‘sky is falling’ or calling it ‘not a big deal’ — those sensational views have proven very quickly to be wrong,” he says.

People are looking to reliable sources, and people are trusting data and real experts.

“We assembled a panel of world-renowned health and data experts from our UCalgary faculty to advise The City of Calgary,” says Dr. William Ghali, vice-president (research) and leader of the advisory group. “It’s our responsibility as scholars and members of our community to step up and apply our knowledge where it is needed most, and we are proud to continue to offer our expertise to The City’s pandemic response.”

The data tracker has evolved in response to questions from The City as case trends emerged. For example, you now see more in-depth figures on age, which came from The City wanting to assess the rise in cases among 20- to 39-year-olds.

“It’s been a journey together,” Williamson says. “They’re making decisions based in science, and having six months of analytics focused on Calgary has helped our leaders to be more balanced in their reactions to what we see happening.”

“The group created a matrix that helped us assess the impact of different policy decisions,” says Sampson. “It helped us to understand the return on things like putting hand sanitizer in buses, creating public education programs, and face coverings, for example.”

The big picture of public health

Sharma hopes that the lessons learned as a result of the pandemic translate into a better understanding for the role of public health in our daily lives.

“I think the general public has a better understanding of the balance between our high quality of life, and how vulnerable we are when public health is threatened,” he says. “When public health and preventative measures work, the reaction is usually that we over-reacted — I think this will fight that perception, and create a greater appreciation for it.”

Work at the Centre for Health Informatics at the Cumming School of Medicine is partially supported by the recent awarding of a $100,000 grant from the Rotary Club of Calgary at Stampede Park.

Urban Alliance is a strategic partnership between The City of Calgary and University of Calgary to promote the seamless transfer of cutting-edge research between The City and the university, for the benefit of all our communities. 

Nishan Sharma is a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health and Education Lead for the W21C Research and Innovation Centre, an initiative within the O’Brien Institute focused on improving the safety and quality of our health systems.

Tyler Williamson is an associate professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences, and a member of the O’Brien Institute of Public Health and the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute at the Cumming School of Medicine.

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