Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada

StFX researchers receive funding for projects to help inform best COVID-19 practices, support NS healthcare decision making and planning  

May 13th, 2020
Pictured, l-r, are StFX faculty Dr. Karen Blair, Dr. James Hughes, and Dr. Katie Aubrecht

StFX faculty Dr. Katie Aubrecht, Dr. James Hughes and Dr. Karen Blair have each received funding to conduct research to inform the best COVID-19 practices and support healthcare decision making and planning that benefits Nova Scotia. 

The three researchers are recipients of nearly $130,000 in funding from the Nova Scotia COVID-19 Health Research Coalition. Partners include the Nova Scotia Health Authority, Dalhousie University, Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation, IWK Health Centre, IWK Foundation, QEII Health Sciences Foundation, Dartmouth General Hospital and Research Nova Scotia. 

Dr. Aubrecht, a StFX sociology professor and Canada Research Chair Health Equity & Social Justice, has received $54,908 and will work to enhance supports for vulnerable older adults living with dementia and their caregivers in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Dr. Hughes, a computer science faculty member, has received $42,000 and will lead a project to provide direction on deployment of COVID-19 tests and other interventions.

Dr. Blair, a psychology professor, is recipient of $32,559.99 and will co-lead a study with Dr. Kathryn Bell of Acadia University that looks at interpersonal relationships as a source of risk and resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic, including LGBTQ+ experiences.


Dr. Richard Isnor, StFX Associate Vice President, Research and Graduate Studies, says StFX researchers responded strongly to the Nova Scotia Covid-19 Health Research Coalition rapid response initiative. 

“We are delighted at the excellent success rate of our researchers in this highly competitive initiative, as well as how research efforts have been quickly adapted to this pressing health priority. It speaks to the exceptional quality of research at StFX,” he says. 

The projects include: 

Dr. Katie Aubrecht

Project: “Evidence to assess the impact of COVID-19 on community-based dementia care in Nova Scotia.”

This study will contribute to, clarify, and enhance the best evidence-in-the-moment about programs and supports for vulnerable older adults living with dementia and their caregivers in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Amount: $54,908

Within the current context of social distancing and social isolation, Dr. Aubrecht says evidence about the resources, services and supports that make it possible for dementia care to continue at home in the community is lacking. “This project addresses the pressing need for information that can be used to assess the impact and health equity implications of COVID-19 on community supports for vulnerable older adults living with multiple chronic conditions, including dementia, and their family/friend caregivers in Nova Scotia.” 

The project (the work will be led by the Spatializing Care Lab at StFX) will contribute to the best evidence-in-the-moment about dementia-relevant supports and program service delivery by using surveys, interviews and focus groups to collect and summarize information about dementia-relevant formal health system and local grassroots resources, services and supports.

Drawing on interviews with diverse populations of people living with dementia and their family/friend caregivers, she says they will create a snapshot of service realities for socially and medically vulnerable populations. “The documentation of service realities will provide a crucial resource for current and future efforts to track, analyze, interpret and address issues of health (in)equity for older adults living with dementia and their caregivers in the province. Project results and outputs will highlight gaps in existing service provision and prioritize areas for action in accordance with resource availability within a dynamic and changing context.” 

She says this research was supported by a Canadian Institutes of Health Research Planning Grant in 2017 that laid the foundations for a multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional international project team and partnership with the Alzheimer Society Nova Scotia and Alzheimer Society of Ireland. The idea emerged after a series of engagement sessions with people living with dementia and their caregivers in Nova Scotia, and continuing care decision makers and knowledge users. The key message from the sessions focused on the importance of community in caregiver resilience, but that not all communities have access to the same kinds of resources or experience them in the same ways.

“Supporting people living with dementia and their caregivers requires attention to diversity. In a public health emergency issues of differential access and experience can be intensified. The new knowledge generated from our current research will develop a baseline that can be used to assess the impact of COVID-19 on service delivery both during and post-pandemic, and support efforts to transition from emergency measures and adjust to the post-COVID-19 realities,” she says. 

“Our team of emerging and established researchers, students and trainees is heartened by recognition of the importance of better understanding and supporting dementia care at home and in the community, documenting promising approaches, and acknowledging and addressing systemic barriers to health equity for Nova Scotians in all of our diversity. We are excited to get to work and to learn from Nova Scotians about how best to strengthen dementia-relevant supports,” Dr. Aubrecht says. 

She says the project will identify evidence and provincial resources, services and supports for people living with dementia and their caregivers can access in Nova Scotia under the emergency constraints of COVID-19. “This information is crucial in supporting vulnerable Nova Scotians in sheltering in place and avoiding emergency hospitalizations and institutionalization during a time when the capacity of hospitals and long-term care facilities is already under threat. The project will highlight the centrality of the continuing care sector within the COVID-19 Response, with a focus on the challenges for, and contributions of, family/friend caregivers and community resource, service and support providers. This rapid research project will also support recognition of the structural determinants and health inequities that shape whether and how caregivers access and experience supports needed to provide care at home during times of crisis.” Dr. Aubrecht says those interested in learning more about the study, can contact her at

Dr. James Hughes

“Employing Hyperheurisitics to provide direction on deployment of COVID-19 tests and other interventions.” 

This study will employ a type of artificial intelligence called a hyperheuristic to provide direction on how to deploy COVID-19 tests, vaccines, or other interventions.” 

Amount: $42,000

Says Dr. Hughes on the project: “Effectively, given a constrained mitigation strategy, such as a limited number of COVID-19 vaccines available, how best can we apply these vaccines to a population of people to minimize spread? For example, in Antigonish, is it best to vaccinate individuals that come in contact with many people on a daily basis, like front line workers at the Superstore or Sobeys? Individuals that travel between communities like mail carriers? Or perhaps the best thing to do is apply the vaccines randomly throughout the population. We likely have a hunch on what's best to do, but unfortunately some of the most common ideas based on our intuition tend to be ineffective.” 

Dr. Hughes says they will be developing a system that uses very powerful types of artificial intelligence to help find strategies that minimize the spread of a given disease. It will consider things like the number of people in a community, the current number of people infected, and how many people an individual comes into contact with to help derive a set of easily understandable rules that can be followed by public health officials. 

As the project moves forward, Dr. Hughes says they aim to include additional information, such as the age of an individual, recovery time, and even if they have preexisting health conditions. 

“One of the large benefits of using this AI is that, not only will it provide us with ways for reducing the spread of the disease, but we will know that the ideas developed will be tested on well-known epidemic simulations. In the end, we will have strategies that are data-driven and evidence-based.” 

Dr. Hughes says the idea came from frequent collaborators of his who have experience working on computational epidemic modelling at the University of Guelph (Dr. Daniel Ashlock) and Brock University (Dr. Sheridan Houghten). “When SARS-CoV-2 came about, it was only natural for them to prioritize it. 

“We hope that the research outcomes will provide evidence-based vaccine/mitigation strategies that will provide insight and guide policy makers and other stakeholders' decisions on how best to maximize public health outcomes for Nova Scotians. It will also be possible to generate custom tailored strategies for a given community as there may be differences in what is best for an urban area like Halifax and what's best for a place like Antigonish.”

Dr. Hughes says that although computer science at StFX is already considered one of the top programs in Canada, it has been exciting to see how fast computer science has been growing at StFX lately. “With this funding, we now can support more research students on campus to not only improve the outcomes of our research, but also to provide unique training opportunities for young Canadian computer scientists with real-world outcomes; students today are looking for a university experience that can provide them not just with classroom experience, but real-world problem-solving experience – that's where computer science research at X comes in.”

Dr. Karen Blair

“The Ties that Bind: Interpersonal relationships as a source of risk and resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

This study will compare Nova Scotians’ wellbeing and coping during the COVID-19 pandemic with other jurisdictions, assess LGTBQ+ Nova Scotians’ wellbeing and coping during the pandemic relative to LGBTQ+ individuals in other jurisdictions, and examine Nova Scotians’ experiences with intimate partner violence during the pandemic in comparison to other jurisdictions.

Amount: $32,559.99   

Dr. Blair and Dr. Kathryn Bell, Acadia University, will co-lead this study that explores how Nova Scotians are coping during physical distancing and stay-at-home orders due to COVID-19. Both faculty members had been working on research (Dr. Blair, with Debby Herbenick of Indiana University, had launched the COVID-19 Interpersonal Coping Daily Diary Study), and this grant allows them to merge and expand their two existing studies to focus specifically on Nova Scotians, including the LGBTQ+ community. 

Dr. Blair says this study will address a gap in the knowledge about the risk and resiliency of Nova Scotians during a time of physical distancing and stay-at-home orders and will offer insights into appropriate mental health and policy solutions. “Nova Scotians like to focus on our strong social ties and tend to see those connections as a source of resilience in times of stress. Indeed, research repeatedly demonstrates that those with close personal connections thrive in terms of physical and mental health, compared to those with fewer or looser connections. Yet in these times of physical distancing due to COVID-19, might this source of resilience become a risk factor?” she says. “Will those who normally have close face-to-face connections with their friends, families, and neighbours struggle more when those close connections are disrupted? Will members of the LGBTQ+ community, who often turn to ‘chosen families’ for support, benefit from their existing online communities, or will they experience disproportionate disruptions, including the necessity of living with unsupportive families? Even worse, will relationships turn dark in these stressful times, with heightened risks of interpersonal and intimate partner violence?”

The researchers will launch a new diary study that leverages the infrastructure of two ongoing COVID-19 studies in order to identify sources of risk and resiliency within Nova Scotia, including both the broader population and Nova Scotia’s LGBTQ+ community. The study will focus on mental health outcomes, optimal coping strategies, social connection, and experiences of interpersonal violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. By building upon two existing studies, the researchers will be able to provide useful comparisons between Nova Scotians, including LGBTQ+ Nova Scotians, and other North American populations. 

Dr. Blair says project results will be shared with relevant stakeholders and are anticipated to inform Nova Scotia public health and allied professionals whose work during disease outbreaks directly impacts the well-being of individuals, couples, families and the LGBTQ+ community, providing evidence to guide optimal provincial responsiveness to the current outbreak, future COVID-19 waves and other disease outbreaks. 

“Our key outcomes will be three reports: 1) To provincial decision-makers, comparing Nova Scotians’ well-being and coping during the pandemic relative to others across Canada and the U.S.; 2) To LGBTQ+ organizations, assessing LGBTQ+ Nova Scotians’ experiences, relative to LGBTQ+ individuals in other parts of Canada and the U.S.; 3) To domestic violence organizations, focusing in more depth on Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), with subsections comparing Nova Scotia to other jurisdictions, and LGBTQ+ participants to others,” Dr. Blair says. 

Initial reports will be shared with decision-makers in June-July, with follow-up reports in July-August. 

Other expected benefits of the research include individual respondents who may benefit in terms of better mental and physical health when they think through and write about their experiences during a stressful event; organizations from insights on how their constituents are being affected by the pandemic, to help prepare optimal support plans; and the province by learning how Nova Scotians are faring compared to other provinces, and where specific challenges and strengths lie. 

Participants will also be invited to Dr. Blair’s ongoing research on collective grief responses to mass shootings. Data between the studies will be linked, allowing researchers to control to some extent for mental health issues attributable to the recent tragic shooting, and to share data on its impact within the context of the pandemic.


This research is, in part, made possible by the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.


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