‘I couldn’t deny what the data was saying’

The graph is based on work on Medrxiv and uses common demographic adjustment calculations to adjust the deaths in each area for the gender and age distribution, which is important in a generally young province like Alberta. The original work looked at the US states plus some other countries. Nickonchuk got the methodology from the author and ran the numbers for all 50 US states and nine Canadian provinces [Prince Edward Island and the Territories have no deaths so far]. The map shows a column for each area that represents the relative age adjusted deaths per 100,000 population with data from the end of September. Bar chart race by Flouish team.

Peace River pharmacist presents his work at conference after his graphs go viral

Susan Thompson
South Peace News

A Peace River pharmacist whose COVID-19 graphs have been shared around the world presented his work this weekend at the Practical Evidence for Informed Practice [PEIP] conference hosted by the Alberta College of Family Physicians.

Tony Nickonchuk, a pharmacist working for Alberta Health Services, has been creating graphs in data visualization tool Flourish.

For instance, his bar chart race graph compares different global causes of death to COVID-19, giving a clear animation of just how quickly the novel coronavirus has been outpacing other diseases and causes of death worldwide. Nickonchuk regularly updates his graphs with new data.

Nickonchuk travelled to Edmonton to present on COVID-19 in person with Mike Allan, co-presenting remotely to roughly 750 primary care providers from across Canada, who attended the PEIP conference via webcasting on Oct. 23-24.

Nickonchuk has a Bachelor of Science in Pharmacy from the University of Alberta. He worked eight years in community pharmacy, then over five years in clinical hospital pharmacy, before moving to a Drug Utilization and Stewardship provincial pharmacy position in February.

He has been previously published in the Canadian Family Physician journal, reviewing the efficacy of drug therapies in collaboration with the Alberta College of Family Physicians.

He also currently sits on the Alberta Health Expert Committee for Drug Evaluation and Therapeutics, the committee responsible for making recommendations to the minister of health on what should or should not be covered on public drug plans.

“Although I do visualizations and analyses for my job, what I share on Facebook is all stuff I do in my spare time, honestly as a hobby,” Nickonchuk says.

“The stats I use are all self-taught. I’ve taught myself R stats software over the years by learning reproducible examples from others.”

Nickonchuk’s graphs, based on data from the Global Burden of Disease Study and data at Ourworldindata, have been shared well over a million times.

Vincent Racaniello, the Higgins Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, mentioned Nickonchuk’s animation of the COVID-19 death rate over time against other leading causes of death on his podcast This Week In Virology.

Nickonchuk’s graphs have also been shared by Dr. David Juurlink, a well-known clinical toxicologist; Alberta economist Todd Hirsch; Mayor of Edmonton Don Iveson; and Toronto-based lawyer, author and political consultant Warren Kinsella.

Nickonchuk says he makes the graphs largely for his own intellectual curiosity.

“The whole mortality thing started in my head as, ‘Hmm. I wonder how the toll of COVID compares to other causes of death?’ That leads me down a rabbit hole and then if I think it’s something that would interest others, I share it,” he says.

“I will say, honestly, I had denial early on. I thought it was nothing to be concerned about. I’d been through H1N1 and didn’t remember it being too bad. Part of doing these things is challenging my own preconceptions.”

Nickonchuk is not alone in having a hard time accepting the seriousness of the novel coronavirus. Alberta has more “cynical spreaders” who flout coronavirus safety guidelines than any other province in Canada according to Angus Reid polling. Conspiracy theories, misinformation and denial of the seriousness of the disease, have become problems worldwide, making accurate and easy-to-understand crucial in the fight to defeat the virus.

“When I started to see numbers coming out of Italy is when I really started to get nervous and when I started looking at those numbers relative to other causes of death in the hardest hit early countries. That’s what made me start to take it seriously,” Nickonchuk says.

“I couldn’t deny what the data was saying,” he concludes.

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