Behind the data: How Rhode Island compiles its COVID-19 model

Coronavirus

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) ─ An economics professor at Brown University is part of a team working daily to craft Rhode Island’s modeling data for COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Emily Oster said she’s grateful for the opportunity to help during these unprecedented times. She is part of a small group of epidemiologists, staff from the R.I. Department of Health and researchers from Brown that is developing the state’s COVID-19 models.

The modeling data Oster and her team has been working on was released for the first time on Thursday during Gov. Gina Raimondo’s daily coronavirus briefing. Raimondo stressed that while the data is not a perfect predictor of where the state is headed, it is “directionally correct.”

“The reason it took longer to come out with these [models] is because we really wanted to be in a position where we could say this is a more reliable set of data,” Oster explained.

Oster said as time passed and data on hospitalization and death rates evolved, it was easier for her team to begin tracing out a curve.

Their goal, she said, is to determine when the peak will happen in Rhode Island and how many people could be affected.

“One of the things we really focused on was trying to match what we think is the most precise data, the most reliable data that we have, which is the data on hospitalization rates and deaths,” she explained. “As opposed to something like data on case counts, where it’s going to be really influenced by how much testing we’re doing.”

Since the start of the pandemic, Oster said her team has taken daily counts of hospitalizations and deaths in order to build their model. Their projections indicate that hospitalizations will peak in Rhode Island around May 3, but only if people continue to follow social-distancing mandates.

The model also shows approximately 2,250 hospital beds will be needed around that time. Raimondo said as of right now, the state’s existing hospitals could handle that number of patients.

But both Raimondo and Oster stressed this scenario will only play out if people continue to stay at home and remain socially distant.

“The model is telling us that the reproduction of the virus, the spread of the virus, is slowing down in line with the timing of social distancing,” Oster said. “That’s how we know it’s really important.”

If distancing was relaxed in Rhode Island, a “higher scenario” shows the peak would occur around April 27 and require 4,300 hospital beds. In terms of deaths, Raimondo said the model projects between 2,120 deaths and 4,015 deaths through October depending on how well the state does with social distancing.

“It is easy, sometimes, when we look at these models to forget those are loved ones and people that we’re losing,” Oster said. “It is part of why it is so important to keep pushing to have better treatments.”

Oster called the pandemic in Rhode Island “much less significant” than elsewhere in the region. She said the state’s modeling team is currently looking at hospitalization and death rates in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and to some extent New York, in order to refine Rhode Island’s projections.

What’s needed for more precise projections? Oster suggests a better understanding of the overall prevalence of the virus in the state.

“I know the governor has pushed a lot on the expansion of testing. That’s something I think we will keep doing,” she said. “Even maybe try to do some random testing where we test a lot of people – even people who aren’t symptomatic. I think people may be asked to participate in that. That’s a really important input to these models.”

“So if you’re asked to do that,” she added, “please consider participating because it would be really helpful.”

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