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UW Researchers Tapped to Help Improve Post-Pandemic Disease Models

August 15, 2022

Researchers at the University of Wyoming and seven other top universities have been selected by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to lay the groundwork for models that more accurately predict the spread of infectious diseases.

The $1 million research project comes on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic, which revealed that current epidemiological models do not adequately account for the human behavioral, social and economic factors that are key to understanding and mitigating a rapidly changing public health crisis.

“The pandemic has shown how critically the success of public health measures depends on understanding human behavioral responses to both infection risks and policy recommendations,” says David Finnoff, the Wyoming Excellence Chair in Economics and McMurry Fellow in UW’s Department of Economics. “Core mathematical epidemiological models have provided useful insight about pandemic risks, but they typically do not account for the wide variety of people’s responses to the risk from the disease -- and the ways these responses shape ongoing transmission.”

Finnoff is the principal investigator leading the interdisciplinary UW research team selected for the NSF project. Other universities participating in the overall $7.5 million program are Columbia University, Cornell University, Duke University, Johns Hopkins University, UCLA, the University of Kansas and Virginia Tech University.

“The resiliency and health of every community in the U.S. can be strengthened by leveraging the fundamental power of mathematics to better understand behavioral and social dynamics,” says NSF Assistant Director for Mathematical and Physical Sciences Sean Jones. “These new projects are bringing together researchers in a multitude of fields, from mathematical biology to social psychology, to unlock the insights that can provide policymakers and others with the most complete predictive models possible.”

Advanced mathematical models are invaluable predictive tools in epidemiology and are widely used by health care professionals, decision-makers and leaders. But the pandemic has shown that human behavior -- such as acceptance of vaccines and masking -- affects disease spread and must be taken into account more fully.

UW’s team aims to advance knowledge about the feedback between human behaviors and infectious disease outcomes by exploring data from three countries with unique characteristics representing health risks, public policies, information sources and government trust: the United States, Norway and Sweden. Real-world data will be supplemented by data collected in controlled settings -- through surveys and behavioral laboratory experiments -- to gain a deeper understanding of the individual factors and social processes that shape people’s responses to epidemic risks.

“Our project will improve the abilities of epidemiological models to predict both disease outcomes and the economic impacts of public health regulations or guidelines, enhancing the capacity of public policymakers to design and evaluate epidemic control measures during future outbreaks,” Finnoff says.

Other UW participants in the study include, from the Department of Economics, Associate Professors Stephen Newbold and Linda Thunström; Professor Todd Cherry, the John S. Bugas Chair; Jason Shogren, Stroock Professor; and Madison Ashworth, a Ph.D. candidate from Star Valley. Others are Associate Professor Rongsong Liu, from the Department of Mathematics; and Professor Sean McCrea, from the Department of Psychology. Also joining the UW team in consulting roles are Nina Fefferman, of the University of Tennessee’s National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis; Johanna Mollerstrom, of George Mason University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Economics Science; Shiri Noy, of Denison University; and Bjorn-Atle Reme, of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.

Ashworth, Thunström, Finnoff, Newbold and Cherry were among the first researchers to point out in 2020 that vaccine hesitancy would make it unlikely for vaccines to achieve herd immunity against COVID. They’ve been honored for other research related to the pandemic as well.

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