Pandemic Modeler Says More Communication Is Needed Between Scientists And Policy Makers

Nov 19, 2020

The United States has now lost 250,000 people to COVID-19. Our case numbers in Wisconsin continue to rise as our healthcare systems remained strained, and a difficult winter is ahead of us.

From death to infection rates, there are a lot of numbers involved when it comes to keeping track of the coronavirus pandemic since its first outbreak. These numbers not only represent lives but serve as tools to help us not just understand COVID-19 but forecast what’s to come and mitigate what we are currently experiencing.

Lauren Ancel Meyers is a pioneer in this work. She’s a mathematical biologist, a professor in the departments of Integrative Biology and Statistics & Data Scienes at the University of Texas-Austin and the director of the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium. She’s also a Milwaukee native and will be giving the annual Marden Lecture in Mathematics at UW-Milwaukee on Thursday afternoon.

Meyers uses mathematics, statistics and other quantitative approaches to answer three basic questsions: how are viruses and other pathogens spreading around the globe today, where could they be spreading tomorrow, and how can we use costly measures or limited resources to slow their spread and save lives?

“One of the most difficult things about forecasting pandemics is that when you’re forecasting a pandemic you have to really forecast two different things. You have to forecast what the virus is going to do but you also have to forecast what the people are going to do,” says Meyers.

She's been tracking COVID-19 since its early days in Wuhan, teaming up with students in China who would comb Chinese language websites to find information from different public health organizations in the country. She also worked with a researcher to track cellphone data to see how people were moving in the country while the virus was spreading.

“We used that in the very first few weeks to estimate how far the virus has maybe already spread outside Wuhan,” Meyers explains.

As they began to collect more data, their projections became about how different efforts to slow the spread and protect people would affect the trajectory of the pandemic.

“If and when we’re able to ramp up surveillance testing as a way to prevent people from showing up in gatherings infected, as we begin to roll out vaccines, you know real detailed quantitative projections about how much those efforts are going to slow spread and if don’t do that, how quickly our hospitals are going to fill up,” says Meyers.

This led to the creation of the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium. With so many difficult questions being asked, Meyers wanted to bring together as many people — and data sets— as possible to help. Organizations and scientists involved have met over Zoom every single day since March 13 and continue to update their forecasts as they get new data according to Meyers.

In addition to the Modeling Consortium, Meyers has regular meetings with the mayor of Austin and other county officials to brief them on how the future of the pandemic is evolving in their area. This is a partnership that she says never existed before and should continue to exist even after this pandemic is over.

"There are things that we can, and we should be doing today to turn the tide ... The fate of this pandemic is in our hands."

“One of the important lessons learned from this pandemic is that we need to have these kinds of collaborations, these kinds of structures in place prior to the next threat so that we can really accelerate the response and really accelerate bringing data and science to the frontline,” says Meyers.

Currently, the model for Wisconsin is predicting the possibility of hitting over 3,000 total deaths in the pandemic by the end of November. Meyers reiterates that this is a full health crisis and taking more action now can help slow the spread and save lives.

“We cannot overstate that this is really a very dangerous, very precarious moment for a lot of the United States and also recognize there are things that we can, and we should be doing today to turn the tide,” she says. “The fate of this pandemic is in our hands.”

That means wearing masks, not meeting indoors or in large groups, and anyone with even slight symptoms should stay home.