Interview by: Hannah Lin (CC '23)
The following is a heavily condensed version of the full interview. If you're interested, read more here.
Could you describe your COVID-19 research?
Some of my work via emergency medical systems has dealt with mass events—responding to disasters, whether they be from epidemics, natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes, or things like mass shootings or bombings. A pandemic is a form of excessive demand, a form of illness on a large scale.
How has your progress been?
We have a pre-print publication looking at counties across the US and their COVID-19 case forecasts over 6-week windows going into the future to look at which counties are at greatest risk of experiencing high levels of COVID-19. It also looks at matching the demand by patients who are seriously ill with the supply of medical resources in counties across the US. Basically, the work is trying to predict which counties are at greatest risk of having their demand of COVID-19 patients exceed the supply of hospital resources, especially critical care.
We have the mapping on our websites:
Have you faced any setbacks thus far?
I’ve been doing this for quite some time, thinking about the population-level surge of illnesses and injuries. When 9/11 happened, there was a lot of resource investment in response, data gathering, modeling, and so forth that then suddenly went away because there were no events in the interim. I think that was a bad decision, because now, the challenge for us in building these models is that we at Columbia and various other universities have had to re-energize past work and pick up the slack.
Mostly, all this response modeling—whether it’s the health system, testing and tracing, or the demand of the cases themselves—we’ve had to redo it, in some cases from scratch. The federal government and state governments have been supportive, but it’s taken them a little bit of time to get their response systems up and running again, to be honest with you. Some people would argue it’s taken too much time—there are lives that have been lost in the time it’s taken for policymakers in general to get on board with all this.
So you’ve reached every hospital in the US?
We have data on every hospital in the US, yes. Almost 6000 of them.
Wow, that’s very impressive. What is the general timeline of your research, and where is it going in the future?
We’re in the process of not just looking forward and building a model that will continue to function to make these predictions, but also looking back and seeing how well our model has been doing.
We want to know if there were overpredictions or underpredictions, over-responses or under-responses. Of course, we don’t want to under-allocate resources because people die in those situations. But something that folks might not understand is that allocating more resources than you need is very dangerous because those resources could be sent somewhere else instead of waiting around and not being used.
Is your team still keeping prior projects going?
Yes, for sure. I actually run Columbia’s CDC (Centers for Disease Control) funded injury science and prevention center. We just had a huge conference last week. This year, since we couldn’t hold it in person, we opened it up, and word got out. What was usually about 70 people turned out to be 350 people who came from as far as Alaska to join the conference and talk about issues of injury prevention.
would say, to our people who are working to study the actual COVID-19 cases and the disease itself. I can’t stress that enough. These health disparities that have been generated by the pandemic are a second disaster upon the first that we really need to take note of and do something about.
What is your perspective on the future?
Our research-for-action is going to march on. We have a group, for instance, organized just prior to the pandemic, that has begun studying gun violence in the United States. This remains a very important issue for the United States. In some cities and rural areas, it is going to be an issue that is competing or will compete with the pandemic itself.
We need to make sure not to slow our research on other very, very important health issues in the United States and the world, whether that be the issue of tobacco, diet and nutrition (food sciences), or climate change and health. I would hate to see these things be given a backseat. But we do need to deal with the current issue of the pandemic and get that to a more manageable situation for everyone’s sake.