How TAMU is working to track the community spread of COVID-19

The Illinois Department of Public Health, along with the governor of Illinois, JB Pritzker,...
The Illinois Department of Public Health, along with the governor of Illinois, JB Pritzker, announced Wednesday additional cases of COVID-19. (MGN Image)(KWQC)
Published: Mar. 31, 2020 at 10:28 PM CDT
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As COVID-19 continues to spread, Texas A&M University faculty members are working to create an Infectious Disease Model to track the spread of the virus in communities.

The model is intended to be a support tool for the public, officials and health authorities at the local, state and national levels.

To learn more about the model, we spoke with Murray Côté, Ph.D., with the Texas A&M School of Public Health. You can watch our interview attached to this story, or read our Q&A with Côté.

Q: What is this model?

A: Generally referred to as an infectious disease model. The model determines the distribution of individuals into various components over time. In the context of infectious diseases and COVID-19 in particular, we consider individuals to be in one of four components: susceptible, exposed, infected and recovered. Over time and in general, individuals move from one component to the next. It is data-driven in that it uses current rates of infection, the number of infected individuals, and the size of the community.

Q: What will the model track?

A: Essentially the spread of COVID-19 in a community over time. How many of the residents are susceptible, exposed, infected, and recovered.

Q: Why are we making it?

A: As part of preparedness for pandemics, it is necessary to identify and understand how a population might change in the face of a pervasive infectious disease. So, the model provides support to decision-makers when they consider policies intended to "flatten the curve." The model provides an estimate or forecast of how many individuals will be in the four components for a given point in time and can provide insight into how those numbers might change relative to policy changes. For example, if we want to severely restrict the spread of the disease, we would consider a policy such as "sheltering in place" or "quarantining." The effect of the policy would be a reduction in the exposure rate and result in fewer individuals being exposed and ultimately infected. The anticipated number of exposed and infected can then be used to determine healthcare resources such as personal protective equipment, ventilators, inpatient hospital beds such as ICU beds, and the like.

Q: Whom will it serve?

A: There is a fairly broad audience for this type of modeling endeavor. Most crucial will be policymakers who help decide local, state or national responses to the pandemic.

Q: Who all is working on this model?

A: There is a group of faculty at the School of Public Health, the College of Veterinary Medicine, and the Texas A&M University Health Science Center. We are receiving valuable input from the Texas Hospital Association, the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals, and the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Q: Describe what it will look like. What we can expect?

A: Think about infectious disease modeling similar to how the path of hurricanes are modeled. In the very short term, such as in the next hour or day, we are quite sure about how many COVID-19 cases we would have in a community. This is similar to me telling you where the hurricane will be in the next hour so we are pretty confident of our answer. However, as we go farther out into the future, we have maybe at best a general indication of where the spread of the infection might be. Again, similar to where we might see the hurricane in 7 days. There's more uncertainty in our answer. What we and other modelers look for is some kind of consensus in the number of individuals in each of the four components. And, our response today to affect the spread of the pandemic will guide how COVID-19 spreads in the future.

Q: When will it be available?

A: Our model is very much a work in progress so we have preliminary results but nothing final to share at this time.

Q: What is the hope for this model?

A: Ideally, we see our model as providing analytic support in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic to help policymakers understand the potential consequences of responses to stem COVID-19's spread.

Côté says once the model is available, it can be viewed on the Texas A&M School of Public Health's website attached in the related links section.