Since the dawn of the COVID-19 outbreak , UBC clinical professor Dr . Danuta Skowronski ( DS ), and UBC professor Dr . David Patrick ( DP ), both epidemiology leads at the BC Centre for Disease Control , have been tracking and forecasting the spread of the virus — offering insight that has proven instrumental in informing B . C .’ s emergency health response . They share why surveillance and modelling are key and reveal what we can expect as the virus continues to evolve .
When COVID-19 first came onto the scene , what was your initial reaction ?
DS : On the morning of December 31 , 2019 , I began my day like any other — scanning online bulletins for news of emerging pathogens . That morning , reports of a virus cluster in China caught my attention immediately and within a few hours , I had drafted a bulletin alerting clinicians and public health officials across B . C . Even from the early days , I sensed this new threat was to be taken seriously .
DP : For me , the watershed moment was when we began to see cases in regions adjacent to Wuhan , China . The whole reason we care about emerging infectious diseases is exactly this kind of scenario , where we have a virus that spreads easily between humans and there are significant consequences of infection , with no treatment and no vaccine .
What is the difference between surveillance and modelling , and why are they important ?
DP : Surveillance comes down to observations we are seeing in real time , whereas modelling is a tool to help project how the pandemic might unfold under various circumstances .
Surveillance and modelling are critical for monitoring how an outbreak is growing , shrinking , or holding steady and ultimately informing the health emergency response in B . C . How many ventilators are needed ? How many critical care beds need to be reserved ? How will returning to work and school impact the transmission rate ? Can apps help with contract tracing ? These are some of the questions our work has and continues to help inform and answer .
What did your first model look like ? How does it compare with the current model ?
DS : In the early days , our challenge was to understand the potential scale of the threat we faced . To inform that , in early February I provided some very basic spreadsheet calculations using severity information emerging from China .
With those back-of-the-envelope calculations we were able to show that comparing the potential number of hospitalizations , ICU admissions or deaths to a nasty “ flu season ” could be a serious under-estimation . Instead , if unchecked , the order of magnitude might be more akin to the worst influenza pandemic on record — the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic .
ISSUE 5 : SPECIAL EDITION — RAPID RESPONSE 15