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Flattening the curve

Science research creates app to explain math behind social distancing


By Kelly Foss

A Memorial expert in theoretical ecology, evolution and epidemiology created an app to communicate some of the basic concepts behind the impact social distancing has on flattening the curve.

Dr. Amy Hurford’s app uses mathematical equations to demonstrate how the number of infected people changes over time with and without social distancing.
Photo: Chris Hammond

Using protective practices, such as deliberately increasing the physical space between people, is believed to help slow the rate of infection so hospital resources don’t get overwhelmed.

But many ask: Does it really work?

Epidemic modeling

“In some ways we’ll never know the effect social distancing has had, unless we were able to visit an alternative reality,” said Dr. Amy Hurford, an associate professor jointly appointed between the Faculty of Science departments of Biology and Mathematics and Statistics.

“But we can explore different scenarios using epidemic models, and what we’ve created is one of the simplest types to give you a general idea of what might happen.”

Dr. Hurford’s app uses mathematical equations used for decades to model diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella and demonstrates how the number of infected people changes over time if no changes were implemented and with social distancing.

This graph shows social distancing of 0.2 or 20 per cent (0 per cent means no social distancing; 100 per cent is complete isolation). The blue curve is with no changes implemented while the green demonstrates social distancing. The grey line represents hospital capacity.  Doubling time is the time for the number of infected people to double early in the epidemic and R0 is the average number of people subsequently infected by an infected person.
Photo: Submitted

“I had been getting media requests, and I knew some of these concepts would be difficult to explain on the air, but I had an idea for an app,” she said. “I reached out to some graduate students for help and I worked with one of them to pull the app together in just a few days.”

Alec Robitaille is part of the biology department’s Wildlife Ecology and Evolution Lab. He helped bring Dr. Hurford’s ideas to life.

“I knew Alec was a whiz at coding,” she said.

“It was my first time making a Shiny app and I was struggling to get the layout properly formatted. Alec improved the code to fix the layout, and added commands to pull data from other websites and to complete the computations more quickly. He did a lot of technical things that would have taken me a long time to troubleshoot by myself.”

Too early to tell

The latest version of the app became available in the morning on March 21 and now includes answers to questions submitted by the public.

“When it comes to the question, “Is social distancing working?” we are so early in the curve we just can’t know,” said Dr. Hurford. “I think scientists have done their best to provide good recommendations on how to cope with this situation, but a long-term strategy has yet to emerge because the science is still ongoing.

Dr. Hurford says more time is needed to develop better models, gather more data and learn more about the virus and its epidemiology.

But more and better results are coming out all the time.

An early start

If the current situation changes in Newfoundland and Labrador, Dr. Hurford also plans to populate a tab with information specific to this province.

“We still only have nine cases [as of publishing time], so we haven’t rushed to complete this component of the app, but we have some code that is nearing completion,” she said. “The idea is to have it automatically collect data from official sources and plot the fit of the model from the first tab to project cases for Newfoundland and Labrador and also to plot a social distancing parameter as a function of time.

Dr. Hurford points out that in this province, we’ve gotten an early start on social distancing so we may not see a change in social distancing over time.

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