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COVID-19 Keeps Researchers Busy

University of West Florida

Researchers locally and around the country have begun what will likely be years of studies on the spread of the coronavirus. “We have two projects currently going on which will probably take another three years to complete,” said Dr. Ashok Srinivasan, the William Nystul Eminent Scholar Chair and Professor of Computer Science at the University of West Florida.

Dr. Srinivasan is part of a group studying the impact of government policies on social contacts in Florida.  He says this work in this area started long before the current coronavirus pandemic. “We have been working since the Ebola outbreak about five years (ago), and our idea was that usually people take action to prevent an epidemic, which disrupts human activities. We were looking at air-travel. We (asked) can we try to maintain social distancing while not disrupting air-travel as much as you normally would.”

The emphasis on studying air travel was to learn about the spread of an infection in enclosed, confined places. Dr. Srinivasan says they also studied what motivates people more to take action to prevent the spread of the virus, common sense or government mandates. “We were thinking the answer would be one of those. There’s one school of thought that says people are rational. Once they know there’s a pandemic they would do sensible things. The other idea is that no, you need to have government impose mandates to make people do sensible things. And we found that people have some common sense, but not enough to prevent an epidemic. But the government policies don’t help either because (people) don’t follow the government policies.”

Credit Ball State University
Dr. Paul Niekamp

Research is going on in other parts of the country too. “In early March, there was one news release that really caught my eye. (It) was a student who was interviewed by CBS News and responded on air ‘If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day I’m not gonna let it stop me from partying,’” said Dr. Paul Niekamp is an assistant professor of economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University. He co-authored a paper on how spring break helped spread the coronavirus this year. “So I saw this and I thought, well, this is something that we could research.”

After pouring through data looking at college spring break dates and tracing infection rates when students returned home, Dr. Niekamp and his group came to the conclusion you’d expect.

“Hopefully this isn’t too surprising, but it is in line with people’s expectations. Yes, students that went on spring break did indeed bring coronavirus back to their local counties. So students went on spring break, they came back, and then either they tested positive so we find a bump up, an increase in COVID-19 spread, growth rates the week they return, and then we also find a lagged increase over the next couple of weeks.”

Dr. Neikamp also says there was an increase in COVID-19 deaths in the students’ home counties five to six weeks after the end of spring break. The findings of the study are in the research paper called “College Student Contribution to Local COVID-19 Spread: Evidence from University Spring Break Timing." “I think it’s important to say that spring break, and university student travel does contribute to local COVID-19 spread in the counties of universities. And this is something that universities need to take into consideration.”

Dr. Paul Niekamp and Dr. Ashok Srinivasan are just two of the many researchers who are studying and will be studying the COVID-19 pandemic for years to come.

“We have epidemiologists studying this, we have health policy researchers studying this, we have people across the board in many disciplines studying this” said Niekamp.

Dr.Srinivasan agrees. “I have collaborators from other universities. So I lead the project but I do have people in many different fields contributing from many different universities.”

In addition to scholarly research, the National Institutes of health says the most immediate areas of medical research they are funding and monitoring are clinical trials for a vaccine and treatment of COVID-19. 

Bob Barrett has been a radio broadcaster since the mid 1970s and has worked at stations from northern New York to south Florida and, oddly, has been able to make a living that way. He began work in public radio in 2001. Over the years he has produced nationally syndicated programs such as The Environment Show and The Health Show for Northeast Public Radio's National Productions.