The University of Massachusetts Amherst

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Predicting the Pandemic

UMass Amherst expert works day and night to curb COVID-19
  • Cronavirus molecule superimposed on world map.

The un-precedented speed and impact of the epidemic requires the best-informed public health decision-making we can produce.

 –Dr. Charles Vitek, White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator

As a noted infectious-disease biostatistician, Nick Reich sensed this day might come, when his expertise would be called on to help keep the world a few steps ahead of a virulent pandemic. The director of the UMass Amherst-based Flu Forecasting Center of Excellence was poised with predictive data that his team had already gathered when the White House Coronavirus Task Force invited him to participate on a webinar-based panel of disease modeling experts.

The virtual gathering last month included some of the world’s leading infectious disease and pandemic forecasting modelers – from researchers at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US to those based at institutions in England, Hong Kong, South Africa, and the Netherlands.

“The unprecedented speed and impact of the [COVID-19] epidemic requires the best-informed public health decision-making we can produce,” commented task force coordinator Dr. Charles Vitek. The task force sought to understand how mitigation measures, such as social distancing and business closures, might slow COVID-19 infection rates.

Reich, an associate professor in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences, heads a flu forecasting collaborative from his UMass Reich Lab that has produced some of the world’s most accurate models for predicting flu trends in recent years. “Pooling the strength of many models together, collaboratively with multiple teams, results in a more consistent and more accurate forecast,” Reich explains. The Flu Forecasting Center of Excellence at UMass Amherst is one of only two such centers the CDC recently designated and funded.

For both his graduate and undergraduate students, for whom he has designed such courses as Telling Stories with Data, Reich’s flu and coronavirus forecasting serves as a powerful example of the application and lifesaving impact of statistical modeling.

Reich also has conducted years of research into how dengue fever, a severe viral infection transmitted by mosquito bites, is spread in Thailand.

All that experience brought him to this influential moment. As COVID-19 began its inexorable spread, Reich and postdoctoral researcher Thomas McAndrew began conducting weekly surveys of more than 20 infectious disease modeling researchers to assess their collective expert opinion on the trajectory of the outbreak in the US. Because, as Reich has learned from influenza forecasting, collaboration is key.

Reich also quickly helped conduct timely research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine that found the median time between COVID-19 exposure and symptoms was just over five days.

He continues to work around the clock to stay on top of the numbers and predict trends through modeling, juggling numerous requests for interviews by top media outlets seeking his perspective.

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