In the shadow of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), it can be difficult to manage research programs. Field seasons have been postponed, lab meetings have taken to online video calls, and some geoscientists have seen their productivity grind down to plate tectonics speeds while the pandemic rages on.
But not all geoscientists.
Babak Fard, an environmental data scientist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) College of Public Health in Omaha, has leveraged his interdisciplinary background to track and predict COVID-19 infection risks to Nebraskans.
He and his colleagues created a dashboard tool that can help responders visualize where outbreaks are trending or where they may spike in the future. The tool is helping healthcare providers and public policy wonks get supplies and resources to the areas of Nebraska that need them most.
Using Geoscience for Human Health Issues
While a doctoral student at Northeastern University in Boston, Fard mapped the risk of heat waves to residents of Brookline, Mass., using a framework tool. The project was part of AGU’s Thriving Earth Exchange, in which scientists work on a problem that advances community solutions.
“We wanted to look at how these extreme temperatures affect public health,” said Fard, adding that the issue has become a global concern. The team identified the hazard (heat waves) and vulnerabilities that can lead to adverse reactions to the hazard. Using these data, they created a regional map of communities with the highest risks of detrimental outcomes associated with heat waves.
Vulnerabilities are a set of social factors that play important roles in how people react to hazards, said Fard. “For example, age is a very important factor in [heat waves],” he noted, adding that different studies show that nonwhite and minority groups are more vulnerable as well.
The team used data on vulnerabilities to identify populations at the highest risk using something called a risk framework. The more vulnerabilities a person has—age, minority status, reliance on public transportation—the higher the risk is. “One purpose of the risk framework is to enable the decision-makers to prioritize their resources to different areas that need attention during a crisis,” said Fard, adding that with limited budgets and supplies, this information is crucial for prioritizing responses.
In his new position at UNMC, Fard used the bones of the risk framework his team built for heat waves for a new purpose: predicting coronavirus risks. This time, the hazard was not a heat wave, but COVID-19.
“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identifies 15 sociodemographic variables to calculate social vulnerabilities,” said Fard, noting that the data are from the U.S. census. He explained that these factors can be grouped into four categories: socioeconomics, household composition and disability, minority status, and housing and transportation. Each category gets a value, and the values are averaged to represent the risk of COVID-19 infection to the population within a geopolitical boundary—in this case, a county.
Mapping a Pandemic
And the information is all easy to read on a map. It has been highly successful for those inside the state and in neighboring states as well. Fard noted that over the past month, on average, there have been more than 2,200 views of the dashboard tool each day.
The map can reveal insights into disease spreads, showing patterns and predicting virus hot spots. These data allow health professionals and government agencies to plan ahead—something Fard called adaptive capacity. “It’s any measure that can help in reducing the vulnerability,” he said, and can include anything from increasing the number of beds in intensive care units to addressing transportation issues.
These maps might be a crucial tool for pandemic responders, said Kacey Ernst, an epidemiologist and program director of epidemiology at the University of Arizona who was not involved with the research. “We might want to enhance our level of testing to catch more cases [in a certain area] or put up a testing center if there’s an area where people would have to take the bus or public transport when they’re ill to get tested,” she said.
“I was impressed that [Fard] was looking at a multitude of underlying factors that might influence what the numbers would say,” said Ernst. She added that she was particularly impressed with the hospital data they included. “I appreciated the fact that he didn’t just put up the case numbers—that he was trying to delve into a little more deeply.”
Ernst said it’s important to look beyond the number of cases and into why the cases are there. “It’s absolutely critical to really understand the underlying population and how that might influence what you see, in terms of both differences in how diseases are reported and in how testing is being conducted.”
The Power of Interdisciplinary Research
The project is a perfect example of how geoscientists can think and apply their skills outside the traditional bounds of their research. “As geoscientists, we know how to work with maps and do geospatial analyses,” said Fard, adding that medical geologists can go one step further and study the effect of geological factors on health. He noted geospatial skills can add a lot of value for crisis responders who need a visual picture of where to focus.
Ernst agreed and said it is imperative, especially during a pandemic, for scientists to look critically at every data source and try to understand its limitations and caveats. “Many geoscientists do sort of broader scales, spatial scales,” she said, adding that often, geoscientists “get that blessing and curse of spotty data and you have to learn how to how to figure out what it actually means and what you can do with it.”
In the increasingly connected world, interdisciplinary research like Fard’s may become the norm, not the exception. For Ernst, this is already the case. “I am a strong proponent of interdisciplinary research teams—that’s pretty much how I do all my work,” she said. “It makes the research really strong when you have teams that are diverse and able to look at data from different angles.”
Fard said that the framework tool is a larger part of the Nebraska Emergency Preparedness and Response effort. And although it is currently being used for COVID-19, “this framework is going to continue to be beneficial in other situations that might come up in the future,” such as natural hazards like floods.
The framework provides mayors, hospitals, and relief workers information for planning and disaster response. Fard said seeing the success of the coronavirus framework will hopefully “inspire other organizations to use it for their purposes.”
—Sarah Derouin (@Sarah_Derouin), Science Writer