Dr. Annalee Yassi, Professor at the School of Population and Public Health (SPPH) and Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Global Health and Capacity-Building has been awarded a medal for her exceptional contributions and service to the community during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Yassi received the award from the Vancouver Medical, Dental and Allied Staff Association and Vancouver Physician Staff Association.
Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Yassi was called upon by Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) to assist with occupational health of VCH health workers and to create and manage a unit focused on the occupational needs of physicians within the health authority. With assistance from her experienced research team – a World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Centre – they created the Physician Occupational Safety and Health (POSH) unit, in order to rapidly respond to questions from medical staff about COVID-19 exposure and symptoms, follow-up regarding testing results, conduct contact tracing, provide up-to-date scientific information about the pandemic, provide surveillance and manage the overall occupational health needs for medical staff related to COVID-19.
The team involved has a wealth of expertise when it comes to researching and addressing the occupational health needs of front line workers. Dr. Yassi and SPPH’s Dr. Jerry Spiegel recently received a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) grant to study the health of healthcare workers globally, including a case study from VCH, work they have undertaken in South Africa, and ongoing work with WHO.
Dr. Yassi’s POSH unit has met an important need throughout the pandemic. “We very quickly set up an occupational health unit that is serving medical staff’s confidential needs. Since the unit was assembled, we have had over 1500 contacts with medical staff,” she adds. The unit has also recently expanded to manage respiratory fit testing for medical staff, contribute to the upcoming influenza vaccine campaign, and conduct tuberculosis contact tracing.
The project has been such an overwhelming success that the model is being examined for use in other jurisdictions across the province, including Interior Health. Whether the project itself is expanded or used as a model for other health authorities is yet to be determined. Still, Dr. Yassi notes, “it will have impact across the province regardless of how the governance ends up being structured.
Dr. Arnold Okpani
The work of the POSH unit would not be possible without a team of volunteers, including some who have since been brought on as staff. The team works closely with Public Health, Infection Control, and Employee Health units and is benefiting from the work of family physician, Dr. Stan Lubin, who came out of retirement at Dr. Yassi’s invitation. POSH has been assisted by more than 20 UBC medical student volunteers, Dr. Arnold Okpani, SPPH PhD student, and Sean Harrigan, SPPH MSc student, along with SPPH staff Karen Lockhart and Steve Barker. The team has also had the assistance of an SPPH Public Health and Preventive Medicine Resident, Dr. Conrad Tsang.
Dr. Arnold Okpani is grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the COVID-19 response. “When Dr. Yassi asked me early in the summer if I might be willing to put in some time with POSH, I did not know what to expect,” Dr. Okpani explains. “I found an incredibly well-motivated and dedicated team being led by Dr. Yassi. Months in, POSH has become part of my daily life! Like everyone else on the team, I am continually motivated by the feedback and support we get from the community we serve.”
This desire to apply concepts studied in graduate school towards serving those impacted by the pandemic is echoed by fellow graduate student Sean Harrigan. “As an epidemiology student studying breast cancer prevention, when the pandemic hit, I knew I wanted the chance to help the community with the skill set I have learned over my degree. POSH gave me the opportunity to contribute by managing and analyzing COVID-19 exposure in real time.”
The award’s medals were commissioned from the Royal Canadian Mint specifically to recognize “frontline staff and everyday heroes from across Canada.” Proceeds from the creation of the medals will be donated to the Breakfast Club of Canada to provide further support to those in need of extra assistance during this financially difficult time.
By Elizabeth Samuels