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The Trouble With Coronavirus Models

This whole COVID-19 craze would be a lot easier to stomach if we could just look into a crystal ball and know exactly how to flatten the curve, how many lives will be claimed, and when our lives will resume their normal patterns.

But, a future influenced by new a virus doesn’t work like that. Instead, experts use mathematical models to help predict what will happen given various scenarios. Results from models vary widely. One model predicts that 200,000 to 1.7 million people in the United States could die from COVID-19. This is terrifying, but also not going to happen. That model, presented by a Center for Disease Control official, doesn’t account for any of the efforts currently taken to stop the spread of the disease, such as widespread business closures, increased testing, and sanitation efforts. Its results should be disregarded instead of spread across cyberspace and beyond.

I learned how to create and analyze mathematical models while taking advanced business classes in college. These models are based on certain known factors, such as a disease’s fatality rate, as well as theoretical unknown factors, such as its future rate of infection. Since they are calculated using numbers we don’t actually know, the results of these models must always be taken with a grain of salt.

Make that a whole shaker of salt in some cases. The model is only as good as its input data, and every one of these models has a subjective component: the human modeler choosing which unknown variables to plug into his formula. This element accounts for the huge variation in model results, some of which are so dire that the situation seems hopeless. Before panicking over doomsday coronavirus models, though, just remember that they are basically one person’s mathematical opinion. And maybe he needs to recheck his math.

In order to avoid panicking over the alarming stats and predictions that come rapid-fire over social media, I deactivated my Facebook account about a week before the efforts to stop the spread of the new coronavirus really hit hard in America. I am so glad I did. I still use Instagram occasionally, but my account is set to private and my followers are limited to folks I know IRL. But I read articles about the rampant spread of misinformation spreading like a highly contagious virus on many social media platforms, and I can only imagine the heyday that meme-makers are having.

It’s tempting to constantly scroll through social media, especially when many people are unexpectedly home from work and school. Adding to the online frenzy are government mandates shutting down physical meeting places like restaurants, bars, and many nonessential businesses. People are encouraged to practice “social distancing,” or staying several feet away from other people in public spaces. This practice is supposed to help curb the spread of the highly contagious COVID-19 virus.

But gathering online instead can have the adverse effect of fueling the inferno of hysteria and fake news that quickly burns across social media platforms. Checking these sites for a specific, limited amount of time each day, or abstaining from scrolling through them all together, can help bring peace of mind during this troubling situation. You can stay informed by reading news reports and calling relevant organizations to ask pertinent questions without increasing your personal stress level.

About Ann Henry

Ann Henry lives in rural America with her husband and three small kids. She manages their household and is the children's primary caretaker. She freelance writes for various publications as a part-time vocation.

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