Modelling the spread of COVID-19

Queen’s professor Troy Day is helping Ontario develop models to predict the future of the virus in the province.

As Ontario works to contain the spread of COVID-19, the provincial government is drawing on the expertise of researchers from its universities. Troy Day, Professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at Queen’s, has been chosen to serve on the Provincial COVID-19 Modelling Consensus Table.

On Monday, Ontario released new models projecting the future spread of the virus in the province. The Gazette connected with Dr. Day to learn about his role at the table that generates these models and also to hear his thoughts about the state of the pandemic in Ontario.

Describe the Provincial COVID-19 Modelling Consensus Table and how it is contributing to the province’s efforts to contain this coronavirus crisis.

Day: The Table is composed of people with expertise in a variety of areas including public health, epidemiology, infectious disease biology, data sciences, and mathematics and statistics. One of its main goals is to use mathematical models to rapidly address questions about the likely consequences of different public health interventions in the control of COVID-19. The Table is chaired by Dr. Adalsteinn Brown of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health (who you have likely heard in Monday’s media conference giving updates and projections on the status of COVID-19 in Ontario) and by Dr. Kumar Murty of the Field’s Institute.

What is your role at this table and what types of insight do you bring as an applied mathematician who focuses on mathematical biology?

Day: Much of the research that my group does centres on developing mathematical theory for the epidemiological and evolutionary dynamics of infectious diseases. I am one of several people on the Table that conducts this type of research and together our goal is to draw on several mathematical results and models (both from our own work and that of others) to form a consensus opinion about the likely future dynamics of COVID-19.

The Province just released updated models of the spread of the virus. What do you think the most significant findings in these models are? Are there any surprises in the data?

Day: Perhaps the most important message from Monday’s briefing is that the physical distancing measures are working. Spread within the community at large is decreasing, although we are probably only now cresting the peak of the first wave of infections. So, these measures will need to be maintained for some time still. More surprising to me at least is the importance of long-term care homes and other congregate settings in disease spread. Roughly one half of the deaths in Ontario are people living in these settings and it is obviously difficult to enact physical distancing measures to control the spread in these places.

What do you think people in Ontario should prepare for as we look ahead? How long might we need to continue embracing physical distancing or other preventative measures?

Day: It is difficult at this stage to be very specific about how much longer physical distancing will need to be in place. However, since we are just now reaching the peak it will be important to maintain these measures so that we come down the other side of the wave. If we relax these measures too soon we risk losing all the ground that has been gained during the past month and having things get out of control.

For more information on the latest models from the province, see the Government of Ontario's website.

Note: This article originally appeared in the Queen's Gazette.