America was unprepared for the magnitude of the pandemic, which overwhelmed many counties and filled some hospitals to capacity. A new paper in PNAS suggests there may have been a mathematical method, of sorts, to the madness of those early COVID days.
The study tests a model that closely matches the patterns of case counts and deaths reported, county by county, across the United States between April 2020 and June 2021. The model suggests that unprecedented COVID spikes could, even now, overwhelm local jurisdictions.
“Our best estimate, based on the data, is that the numbers of cases and deaths per county have infinite variance, which means that a county could get hit with a tremendous number of cases or deaths,” says Rockefeller’s Joel Cohen. “We cannot reasonably anticipate that any county will have the resources to cope with extremely large, rare events, so it is crucial that counties — as well as states and even countries — develop plans, ahead of time, to share resources.”
Predicting 99 percent of a pandemic
Ecologists might have guessed that the spread of COVID cases and deaths would at least roughly conform to Taylor’s Law, a formula that relates a population’s mean to its variance (a measure of the scatter around the average). From how crop yields fluctuate, to the frequency of tornado outbreaks, to how cancer cells multiply, Taylor’s Law forms the backbone of many statistical models that experts use to describe thousands of species, including humans.
But when Cohen began looking into whether Taylor’s Law could also describe the grim COVID statistics provided by The New York Times, he ran into a surprise.
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