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CU Boulder study: U.S. health data infrastructure needs to evolve before next pandemic

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While preventative measures like school closures and social distancing saved lives during the pandemic, they were part of a mass scramble to ‘stop the spread’ that could be eliminated if the country had a better infrastructure for gathering public health data, according to a new study conducted by the University of Colorado Boulder and UCLA.

The study, authored by Stephen Kissler, an associate professor of computer science and mathematical epidemiologist at CU Boulder, and Andrew Atkeson, a professor of economics at UCLA, focused on determining the effectiveness of behavioral changes — like wearing masks and social distancing — in lowering the death total of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S.

Their study found that changing peoples’ behavior until a vaccine could be developed prevented roughly 800,000 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. The authors wrote that 68% of Americans were able to get vaccinated before ever being infected, thanks largely to these behavioral changes.

“Without vaccines, behavior alone would have postponed infections, but in the end, nearly everyone would have been infected and subject to a high infection fatality rate from that first infection,” they wrote. “Without a behavioral response, vaccines would have come too late to save lives.”

But Atkeson and Kissler noted that, while crucial during the pandemic, the changes to daily life were so severe because the collection of public health data nationwide was sluggish and ineffective. Due to the delay in tracking the spread of COVID-19, public health officials relied on a complete shutdown of daily life in order to stop the spread rather than specific, targeted interventions.

The authors called for the U.S. to develop more sophisticated and centralized national infrastructure in order to collect data on how people interact and spread viruses before the next pandemic hits, so that a similar complete shutdown won’t be necessary in the future.

The authors worry that if another pandemic were to emerge, Americans would be less willing to stay home.

“My concern is that the next pandemic will be deadlier, but people will ignore it, because they will say, ‘Oh, we overdid it during COVID,” said Atkeson in a statement.

In a highly decentralized system, the federal government collates vital statistics gathered by counties and states, Atkeson noted in an interview with The Brookings Institution. For instance, it took the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention four to five months to get nationwide hospitalization statistics, he said.

A new infrastructure should include much faster diagnostic testing and contact tracing so that health officials can understand where and how a new disease is spreading, Kissler said in an interview with The Brookings Institution. Data collection should also be ongoing, so officials can compare data from any new disease against a baseline.

“The behavioral changes needed to prevent disease spread can look very different from one community to the next and one virus to the next,” said Kissler in a release. “If we have more granular, timely data to work with we can do a much better job of targeting interventions so we don’t have to just stop everything.”

Read the study at brookings.edu/articles/the-impact-of-vaccines-and-behavior-on-us-cumulative-deaths-from-covid-19/.

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