TAMPA, Fla. – University of South Florida College of Public Health Professor Edwin Michael’s arrival on campus coincided with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, giving an innovative system he’d built to track and predict disease outbreaks its debut amid a global crisis with severe statewide implications.
Now, the pandemic forecasting system has earned support from Florida Blue, forging a relationship between this innovative new effort and Florida’s leading health insurer as it works to provide better care for its members and the communities it serves.
Florida Blue has given $100,000 to the USF Foundation to support the SEIRcast COVID-19 Forecasting & Planning Portal, which provides daily unique, locally applicable epidemic forecasts.
“Floridians’ lives have been upended for months as we grapple with the COVID-19 health crisis while seeking options to safely reopen and return to operations of our communities. Florida Blue is collaborating with organizations across the state to not only support the essential and immediate needs of our neighbors, but also to find innovative solutions to assist communities in combating this virus,” said Florida Blue Market President David Pizzo. “The USF College of Public Health has been at the forefront of forecasting and tracking the pandemic in a manner that can provide local officials with insights that can potentially save lives.”
SEIRcast is unique in its ability to forecast the pandemic at a county level by taking into consideration the impacts of local transmission conditions, social behavior and decisions, a feature Michael said is needed for supporting local decision-making. Working in collaboration with the Center for Research Computing at Notre Dame University, the system can generate forecasts of COVID-19 outbreaks by adjusting each day to the current transmission and social conditions applicable to a county. The modeling tool also provides predictions for investigating a wide array of “what-if” policy scenarios such as stay-at-home orders, mask mandates or re-openings that might cause cases to fall or surge.
The forecasting and planning tools for SEIRcast allow decision-makers to track COVID-19 transmission and predict otherwise unexpected outbreaks – including estimating unreported and undetected cases, which has been a particularly vexing problem with asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19. A hospital resource planning interface allows health care providers to monitor whether the pandemic will overwhelm resources before the crisis hits.
Michael likens the system to the hurricane forecasts, well known to Floridians, that continuously adjust their predictions by fitting to changes in variables such as steering currents, wind shear and water temperature that affect a storm’s track and intensity. The SEIRcast COVID-19 pandemic forecasts play out in much the same way, he said.
Earlier this year, Michael joined USF from the University of Notre Dame, where the lab studied the spread and control of global infectious diseases. It delved deep into the factors driving tropical vector-borne and zoonotic diseases such as lymphatic filariasis, onchocerciasis, malaria, dengue fever and leishmaniasis. USF faculty members Dr. Thomas Unnasch, Dr. Robert Unnasch and Dr. Marissa Levine also collaborate with Notre Dame researchers and the Central Analysis Unit in London on the SEIRcast project.
Michael said the SEIRcast effort has been able to give local decisionmakers a tool for forecasting the impact of their decisions on the fast-moving pandemic that has played out slightly differently in every community where circumstances either allowed the novel SARS-Cov-2 virus to spread unchecked or stopped it in its tracks.
“Engaging with Florida Blue, I’ve learned a lot about the county-level needs,” Michael said. “They are concerned with the vulnerable populations in each county and how the epidemic will play out. Listening to these concerns helps me think about how to enhance SEIRcast to address these policy and pandemic management needs on the ground.”
Learn more about SEIRcast at https://seircast.org/.
About the University of South Florida
The University of South Florida is a high-impact global research university dedicated to student success. Over the past 10 years, no other public university in the country has risen faster in U.S. News and World Report’s national university rankings than USF. Serving more than 50,000 students on campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee, USF is designated as a Preeminent State Research University by the Florida Board of Governors, placing it in the most elite category among the state’s 12 public universities. USF has earned widespread national recognition for its success graduating under-represented minority and limited-income students at rates equal to or higher than white and higher income students. USF is a member of the American Athletic Conference. Learn more at www.usf.edu.
About Florida Blue
Florida Blue, Florida’s Blue Cross and Blue Shield company, has been providing health insurance to residents of Florida for 75 years. Driven by its mission of helping people and communities achieve better health, the company serves more than 5 million health care members across the state. In total, Florida Blue and its affiliated companies serve 27 million people in 35 states. Headquartered in Jacksonville, Fla., it is an independent licensee of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association.