COVID-19 briefing: Homegrown models inform university’s safety measures


The latest COVID-19 Briefing Series featured professors Nigel Goldenfeld, Sergei Maslov and Champaign-Urbana Public Health District epidemiologist Awais Vaid and discussed how U. of I. modeling and testing methods are shaping the campus response to the pandemic.

The latest COVID-19 Briefing Series featured professors Nigel Goldenfeld, Sergei Maslov and Champaign-Urbana Public Health District epidemiologist Awais Vaid and discussed how U. of I. modeling and testing methods are shaping the campus response to the pandemic.

Photo by Fred Zwicky

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — When classes resume Aug. 24, the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign will enlist a program that includes COVID-19 target, test and tell protocols and employs a saliva-based testing method. The program’s design relied heavily on a team of researchers’ predictions of how different variables might help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

“Our models focus on the targeting aspect of the SHIELD program,” said Nigel Goldenfield, who appeared Thursday in an hourlong online briefing with colleague Sergei Maslov, Champaign-Urbana Public Health District epidemiologist Awais Vaid and Chancellor Robert Jones. “Who do we test? When do we test them? How often do we test? Can other mitigation strategies on the testing be effective?”

Goldenfeld and Maslov are part of a team of scientists that worked to create and analyze multiple COVID-19 models for the state, which were discussed in the briefing, along with new predictions that are shaping safety protocols for when students return to campus in the coming weeks.

“My hope is that people viewing this briefing will understand that our message comes not from personal opinion, but from hard data and mathematical predictions,” Goldenfeld said.

Viewers of the briefing received a snapshot of the early modeling efforts and current predictions for the second wave of infections occurring at the state level. Maslov emphasized that new modeling data indicates that young people – ages under-21 to 30 –appear to be leading the latest surge in Illinois, as predicted by the team’s earlier models.

The campus models predicted that a combination of twice-weekly testing, contact tracing, isolation, universal use of face covers and restrictions on class size can bring the pandemic to manageable, relatively safe levels.

The results of modeling the effectiveness of the SHIELD program are preliminary, the researchers said. These predictions can change due to three main factors: the adoption of improved technical methods, the prevalence of COVID-19 in the background population and future changes in the state’s reopening plan.

“It is true that scientific models like ours change,” Maslov said. “That simply means that the team is making updates based on the most current scientific evidence and input from stakeholders. As we learn more about the disease, we need to explain the change and adapt our models accordingly.”

All of the participants in the briefing emphasized the importance of individual compliance with the new campus protocols to keep the campus and surrounding community safe, healthy and functioning.

“We need individuals to realize that while their actions may not have a direct impact on their own health, it can have a catastrophic impact on others for which they come into contact,” Vaid said. “As a community, we can only succeed if everybody shares the burden. If we don’t do this, then we will have to revert to one of the earlier phases of the governor’s stay-at-home order – and nobody wants that.”

The expertise of Goldenfeld and Maslov has given the U. of I. the ability to adapt and to move forward, Jones said. “They are leaders in the partnership with other experts on campus, the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District and the state. I could not ask for a better mix of experts to help us guide this university, the state and I think potentially the rest of the nation and the world as well. I couldn’t be more proud.”

The online event attracted more than 550 online viewers in real time. To see a recording of this discussion, visit the U. of I.’s COVID-19 Briefing Series website.

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