Faculty News

How Data Helps Battle COVID-19

In this episode of Michigan Minds, Emily Martin, PhD, MPH, professor of epidemiology at the U-M School of Public Health, discusses how governments and businesses use epidemiological data to make decisions about reopening safely following the COVID-19-related shutdowns. She also provides insight on how experts can measure the effectiveness of a COVID-19 vaccine when one is available.

Martin says that it’s important to understand how COVID-19 moves and what levels of disease are in particular communities.“One of the things that’s been really hard is that, unlike the usual flu season, things are happening in different areas of the state, and in different areas of the country, at different times. So this is creating a higher burden of knowledge that we need to be able to figure out.”

Measuring the rates of the virus spread at the local level is significant, she says, because reopening an entire state could be bad for a specific region within that state.

Martin is part of a team at the School of Public Health that is focused on measuring, in a quick and responsive manner, how COVID-19 has been spreading in Michigan. She and her colleagues at SPH collaborated with the U-M School of Information to develop a dashboard that displays the data in a simple and useful way.

“One of the things we’ve found is that there’s not one number that fully captures everything that’s going on. You want to look at testing patterns. You want to look at how cases are changing,” she says. “So being able to balance a suite of information together is important to be able to make decisions.”

She discusses the complexities of the disease—specifically, the lag time between infection d and the appearance of symptoms—and emphasizes how critical it is to have testing and the ability to quickly respond to positive test results.

Martin says that the systems to measure vaccine effectiveness already exist for the flu vaccine, and she imagines the calculations will be similar for COVID-19.

“There are a lot of open questions about how best to make a vaccine, and what it’s going to be able to do,” she says, adding that many vaccines prevent infection from occurring in the first place but the purpose of others is to reduce the amount of the infection so it doesn’t transmit.

Martin also explains the importance of antivirals—a therapeutic option involving medication that could be taken orally or be easily provided at a hospital.

“That could be incredible in terms of being able to stop the pandemic,” she says.

Learn more in this episode of the Michigan Minds podcast.

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