Models under surveillance as coronavirus becomes politicized


Models that believe the rapid spread or rapid extinction of the coronavirus have become the latest flash point for a politicized pandemic that forces Americans to seek answers – and find highly contrasting information.

The impressions these models have left are reminiscent of the polls that showed the former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGovernment Warns Russia May Try To Advise Candidates 2020, Secret Biden Campaigns Wins Kansas Primary All-Mail Hillary Clinton Shows Cloth Mask: ‘VOTE MORE attract more support than President TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN demands Trump campaign stop using “distorted” network clip in ad Schumer: Fauci could testify in Senate next week Fauci rejects “circular argument” coronavirus from Chinese laboratory PLUS ahead of the 2016 presidential election. Clinton won the popular vote, but Trump won the White House, giving an easy and endless aftershock to those who are skeptical of political politics.

Now, it is the coronavirus case counting models that arouse skepticism and anger. The Conservatives say they are exaggerating the threat posed by the pandemic, causing an economic disaster that will be worse than the virus itself. Those on the left see an administration minimize health risks and cherry picking models that are hopelessly optimistic.

“You will often see declarations of victory in public health or politics if things are not as bad as the models,” said Rich Besser, a former acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) who now leads the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “Models are tools. Models are not reality. “

It didn’t help that the most widely touted White House model produced by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington turned out to be so profoundly incorrect that it caused even criticism from fellow school statisticians.

This model managed to be both far too pessimistic, predicting that some states would need 10 to 20 times more hospital capacity than they actually needed, and overly optimistic, showing the number of cases and deaths plunging at an unrealistic pace.

Several states have used the IHME model to build field hospitals to prepare for an expected increase in the number of coronavirus patients or to spend millions of dollars on respirators and respirators they thought they needed. Many field hospitals have already been dismantled and the ventilators are unused because the model proved to be too alarmist. Senior advisers to two Republican governors told The Hill they were frustrated with what they now consider misleading information.

But models, unlike political polls, are not intended to predict the future. Instead, both are snapshots of time, projections of what would happen in the present circumstances or various scenarios.

The output of a model changes when the variables it considers change: if a model is informed that a country will not practice any measure of social distancing, it will predict more cases of coronavirus and deaths than if it is informed that ‘a country will practice strict and forced social distancing. The output of a poll changes when its variables are changed: if a pollster assumes that evangelical voters are more likely to run at higher rates, the Republican candidate will see their status improve, and if younger voters or African Americans are likely to run disproportionately to vote the Democratic candidate could benefit.

As a virus begins to spread, models can have huge ranges – their equivalent to a survey’s margin of error – because so much about a disease remains unknown.

Besser, who ran the CDC when the H1N1 flu started spreading worldwide more than a decade ago, recalled a model showing that on a 5-point scale, the virus would be a 3, with a range 1 to 5 – a range that included both no threat and a catastrophic global pandemic that would kill tens of millions of people. Once much more was known about the H1N1 virus, it became clear that it was not the pandemic disaster it could have been.

“At the start of a pandemic or any public health emergency, the real data is lacking and modeling can provide you with a framework in which to think about the critical factors that can influence the course of an epidemic,” said Besser. “But models never replace real data. As an epidemic progresses, models are better informed by reality. “

On Monday, an internal estimate prepared by a researcher at Johns Hopkins University for the Federal Emergency Management Agency made the headlines by showing that the number of potential new cases of coronavirus could reach 200,000 per day in a few weeks, with thousands of Americans dying every day – an estimate so shocking that the White House disowned it.

It was not the first time that a model had caused a political headache. When the Ebola virus broke out in West Africa in 2014, an internal CDC model predicted that 1.4 million people would be infected in just four months. This figure was the absolute worst case scenario, assuming nothing would be done to stop the spread of the virus – but it was a headline that television and newspaper journalists could not resist.

The number was so surprising that senior public health officials, including Anthony FauciAnthony Fauci Schumer: Fauci could testify next week before the Senate, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, and Rajiv Shah, director of the United States Agency for International Development, both called Tom Frieden, then director of the CDC, to complain. Frieden refused to give in and the newspapers made the headlines the next day.

“I’m always kidding [models are] not scaring people is scaring them, “said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Prevention at the University of Minnesota.

Epidemiologists and policy makers argue that models are useful for understanding what might happen, given different circumstances, and how to allocate resources. In the case of a virus, models would predict where it would start to spread and policy makers and public health officials could rush equipment or personnel to the affected areas in time.

“They are really useful for projections so that health care systems are not overwhelmed. The real international disasters have been when there is so much COVID-19 that hospitals can’t respond and you have the ICU rationing and all kinds of other things that are terrible, “said Paul Sax , clinical director of the infectious diseases division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

No political strategist relies solely on a poll or pollster. Likewise, no one at the CDC, the World Health Organization, or any other public health agency relies on one model. CDC officials are considering dozens of models, some of which are developed in-house and others from universities and experts around the world.

And each model has its own faults. Models cannot account for certain factors that influence the spread of a pandemic, said Besser, such as racial data showing that African-Americans are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus in part due to a lack access to quality health care.

Perhaps the most important model that models can play is to make policy makers and the general public understand how dangerous a virus could become if drastic measures were not taken. A large and frightening number of potential victims is a way for public health officials to get attention when they need it.

“You will always be accused of not doing enough or doing too much. And from the start, you really want to fall into the camp of having done too much, “said Besser. “Because you save lives this way. “


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