Two years since the official declaration of the global COVID-19 pandemic, a Trent University undergraduate student is looking back at some of the decisions made by regional public health officials to protect the community from the effects of the virus.
As part of a community-based research project, fourth-year International Development Studies student Sébastien Nicolle is working alongside Peterborough Public Health (PPH)—as well as another Trent student—to review how the health unit prioritized the first shipment of vaccines received from the Province.
“Scarcity of the vaccines initially meant public health units had to prioritize who was going to receive the first doses, and the first set of people that could get it in Peterborough were health care workers and seniors at risk (80+),” said Sébastien, a Gzowski College student who is completing a joint major in Business Administration.
“What I am looking at is how Peterborough Public Health picked who to give the vaccine to first, and evaluating whether the decisions and the process were ethical, equitable and effective. I’ve learned that in the beginning when the health unit was receiving so few vaccines per week, they even had to prioritize people within the priority groups.”
Challenging the way he thinks
This project provides Sébastien the opportunity to apply the research skills and critical thinking he has developed at Trent University. A literature review of provincial and federal guidelines for setting vaccine priorities, as well as interviews with various community stakeholders in the sequencing decisions, will all factor into the final analysis.
“We’ve been reviewing lots of documents provided to us by PPH to see who was consulted and if there were any people or certain groups that were missed in the initial discussions about who should receive the vaccine first,” said Sébastien. “These documents and the information gained through interviews are real primary sources of data and information that we need to analyze.”
Sébastien says one of the most challenging parts about this project was shifting his mindset from academic exploration to practical implementation.
“For the past three years I’ve been trained to look at things very theoretical and ask very in-depth questions,” said Sébastien. “But for this project I find I am training myself to keep my focus within the parameters of the question and research. It’s whole new exercise in critical thinking.”
With the ultimate goal of delivering recommendations for the next potential pandemic or public health crisis, this project has major implications for the general public, and that comes with high standards of work.
“It’s pretty intense to be part of a project that is looking at an ongoing social and public health issue,” said Sébastien. “COVID-19 has had a significant impact on peoples’ lives, and so my research could affect a lot of people here in Peterborough.”
Sébastien’s work is critical from the perspective of Peterborough Public Health too.
“This project was undertaken at a time when our staff members were occupied by other work relating to the COVID-19 response,” said Sterling Stutz, health promoter for Emergency Response Planning at PPH. “It has allowed us to understand the context of our local work within the context of broader vaccine scarcity and COVID-19 community response, without just relying on provincial and federal data, which don’t always capture local nuances but are so important.”
As Sébastien looks to complete his fourth year at Trent, this project is helping him launch into the next phase of his career path.
“I want to do a research-based master’s program when I am done my undergrad so this class was a really practical and useful step towards a path in research,” he said. “It’s the first research project I am doing and since I am more interested in the international development side of my degree, this is engaging me being critical about what is happening in the world and community around me.”