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University of Regina psychologist receives federal funding for COVID-19 research

By University Advancement and Communications Posted: March 23, 2020 8:00 a.m.

Dr. Gordon Asmundson was awarded $400,000 in funding as part of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s Canadian 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Rapid Research Funding Opportunity
Dr. Gordon Asmundson was awarded $400,000 in funding as part of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s Canadian 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Rapid Research Funding Opportunity Photo: University Advancement and Communications

As of Sunday, the World Health Organization reported that there were 294,110 confirmed cases of the novel corona virus worldwide. They’ve also confirmed 12,944 deaths. And the numbers keep climbing. 

It’s no wonder that COVID-19 is a stark example of how during pandemics psychological factors play a significant role in the spread and containment of infection (e.g., adhering to social distancing guidelines) and in societally disruptive behaviour (e.g., infection-related discrimination, excessive fear and worry, overuse of healthcare resources).

“This means that psychological factors have important public health significance,” says Dr. Gordon Asmundson, a University of Regina professor in the Department of Psychology. Asmundson was just awarded a $399,700 federal grant for his study, COVID-19: The Role of Psychological Factors in the Spreading of Disease, Discrimination, and Distress.

The funding was part of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s Canadian 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Rapid Research Funding Opportunity.

“This funding is critical to better understanding the common psychological responses to COVID-19 and the ‘new reality’ it has imposed on our daily lives. Importantly, it will help Canadians and others be better prepared if and when we are faced with a future coronavirus outbreak,” says Asmundson.

Asmundson, who is also a registered doctoral psychologist, a Royal Society of Canada Fellow, and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Anxiety Disorders and Clinical Psychology Review, is a researcher with a focus on health anxiety. Dr. Steven Taylor, from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of British Columbia and author of The Psychology of Pandemics, is the co-principal investigator of this project.

The focus of this federally funded project is a series of three studies, with the end goal of developing a rapid assessment system, delivered through an online platform, which can be used to assess, for any pandemic or major epidemic, infection-related excessive behaviours, anxiety and xenophobia, and risk factors for these problems.

Asmundson and his collaborators will use results from nationally representative data--collected in Canada and the United States--to conduct three studies with a specific focus on COVID-19.

The goal of Study One is to develop and validate ways to measures COVID-19-related anxiety and xenophobia, as well as related behaviours, such as adherence to hygiene and social distancing recommendations.

measures developed in Study One to identify factors that predict COVID-19-related anxieties and fears, which will then inform the development of preventative and intervention strategies for these fears and anxieties,” says Asmundson.

Based on those findings, Asmundson says that for Study Three his team will design and evaluate an online public health assessment and information platform.

“The platform will aim to help people develop ways of coping to aid in their ability to maintain mental and physical health, while also helping reduce the spread infectious outbreaks,” explains Asmundson.

The platform will then be expanded to monitor the psychological impact of public health problems, like pandemics and epidemics, identify people in need of psychological services, and implement interventions for reducing infection-related xenophobia and excessive anxiety.

“Since things are moving fast, and since we have multiple time points for data collection, our results will come in stages,” says Asmundson. 

The research team began collecting data on Friday, March 20. As of 4:00 P.M Sunday, 2,853 surveys were completed by both Canadian and US respondents. 

Asmundson says they expect to have initial findings within the next several weeks, and will have follow-up findings within six months. 

The following is a March 26 email interview conducted with Dr. Asmundson about his research project: 

How is your research project progressing so far?  

Our small team is working around the clock on this project, and the inflow of data is unprecedented in such a short time.

The data you are gathering are being collected from a survey being sent out to people in Canada and the United States. What kinds of questions are on the survey?

In addition to measures that assess trait-like characteristics (e.g., how anxious a person typically is), we generated a pool of items to comprehensively assess coronavirus-related anxieties, fears, xenophobia, and behaviours (e.g., panic buying, social/physical distancing). We also generated items to assess responses to social/physical distancing and other behavioural changes that may help stop viral spread. Items were generated on the basis of descriptions of infection-related anxiety and xenophobia in the literature and a review of items assessing fears of Zika virus and the 2009 H1N1 influenza.

How are you distributing the surveys? 

Data are being collected from the United States and Canada using a web-based self-report survey delivered in English by Qualtrics, a data management firm. The survey included well-established measures for screening trait individual difference variables, as well as items specific to COVID-19-related thoughts, emotions, attitudes, and behaviours - such as social/physical distancing. Respondents are asked to voluntarily complete the survey in three waves. The first wave is being collected between March 21 and March 28, 2020. The second and third waves will be collected one and three months after completion of the first wave, respectively. 

Participation was solicited by Qualtrics and was stratified by age, sex, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and geographic region within each country in order to be generally representative of the population of each of the United States and Canada. 

How many surveys have you received to date? 

As of 8:30 a.m. on March 26, we received 4,963 completed surveys and another 1,355 are in progress, with approximately equal numbers from the United States and Canada. We anticipate the first wave of data collection to be completed by the target date of March 28. 

What are you expected to learn from the first wave of surveys you receive? 

The data from the first wave of data will allow us to answer many questions regarding the psychology of COVID-19. For example, we will be able to assess patterns of social/physical distancing between the United States and Canada, as well as within different regions of each country. And, importantly, we will also be able to identify predictors of those who are and are not adhering to the social/physical distancing recommendations. 

Once predictors of social/physical distancing behaviour are identified, behaviour change campaigns can be more appropriately targeted to increase participation and adherence. 

Likewise, we should be able to predict the characteristics of people who are likely to get vaccinated should a vaccine become available. This is critical given evidence from prior pandemics that only a little over half of the population will get vaccinated when a vaccine is available. These are just two of many important questions that will be addressed with our data from the first wave. Follow-up data from the second and third waves will allow us to assess whether there are changing patterns in behaviour (and other variables of interest). 

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