As vaccines roll out around the world, the question on everybody’s mind, is what does the journey back to “normal” look like? A new normal won’t return at the flip of a switch. We need to understand what’s happening, and we need trusted data to do that. So what should we be tracking? What metrics do we need to make effective, data-driven decisions? And, how do we know if we’re on the path to normalcy?
We recently spoke with Dr. Sam Scarpino, complex systems scientist, and assistant professor at the Network Science Institute at Northeastern University. With his help, we’ve identified five key variables that can help us measure our progress to a state resembling normalcy. In other words, when data will tell us when and how we can return to a simpler—if not quite normal—life.
1. Vaccine effectiveness
The first variable is, of course, the vaccines themselves. In our conversation, Scarpino shared two important variables regarding vaccine rollout:
- Transmission: The amount that vaccines reduce transmission
- Deployment: How quickly we can roll out vaccines across the country and internationally
Public and private healthcare organizations will need to track these data at a granular level.
Scarpino also emphasized the need for passive, always-on surveillance for COVID-19 and for genomic variants, like the B.1.1.7 variant in the United Kingdom. “Without these surveillance systems, we’re going to be continually caught off-guard by this disease and the “new normal” will feel a lot less normal,” said Scarpino.
2. Vaccine distribution
Next, we have to consider the huge task of distributing and administering the vaccines. This of course brings production and logistical challenges from mass shipping of perishable products, to scaling delivery to patients within myriad healthcare systems. And most critical of all, prioritizing what groups should be vaccinated first, and managing follow-up to ensure second doses are administered on schedule.
“At this stage, the biggest obstacle is delivery of the vaccines,” shared Scarpino. “Given the lack of a uniform national plan, states and localities are creating their own distribution and vaccination plans. Every state has a different approach, with varying levels of success. As a result, we’re already seeing dreadfully slow uptake. What this means is that we need more federal support for community health organizations administering the vaccine and public health agencies monitoring and coordinating our responses.”
There are also concerns around equal access to vaccinations.
“Communities of color and Native American populations have experienced an increased burden of COVID-19, as a direct result of generations of systemic racism that have impacted health and access to healthcare. As a country, and internationally, we need to engage with individuals in these communities to ensure they have a voice and vote in how vaccines are prioritized.”
3. Vaccine acceptance and uptake
The third key variable is vaccine acceptance and uptake, which is difficult to predict. Vaccine acceptance is about building trust within local communities, especially where vaccine hesitancy is the norm. Uptake, on the other hand, is about vaccinations itself. Is it fast, easy, and accessible? The story of COVID-19 is fundamentally a local story, so what we really need are data insights at the postal code level.
“The first step is a critical and realistic assessment of our failures and successes, which requires data,” shared Scarpino. “If we don’t have detailed enough data around uptake, we can’t see which communities are close to herd-immunity and which are further away. We’ll be in the dark trying to respond to COVID-19 flare-ups.”
4. Testing speed and availability
It’s going to take time to roll out the vaccine. But with focus shifting to the vaccine itself, we can’t forget the importance of testing. We need to address questions like:
- How available is on-demand testing?
- What are the barriers that prevent people from being tested?
- How long do the results take? Hours or days?
With this data, communities can identify hot spots and businesses gain insights they need to reopen, getting us one step closer to normalcy.
Scarpino emphasized that “high-rates of testing, paired with isolation, quarantine, and contact tracing can control COVID-19 even without a vaccine,” based on models and data from countries like Vietnam and Australia. “With the proper non-pharmaceutical interventions, we could potentially reach normalcy in months instead of years,” shared Scarpino.
5. Contact tracing
Finally, even with testing, vaccines, and wide scale public health measures, nothing beats good old fashioned contact tracing.
“Contact tracing—and its vital partner, case investigation to determine the source of infections—remains our best tool for fighting this disease,” shared Scarpino.
Closely monitoring where, when, and by whom one was exposed will help people understand if they are at risk, and take the right precautions, especially if they are asymptomatic. Contact tracing is foundational to the path to normalcy, by making sure that exposed individuals are aware, they can take actions to limit further transmission.
“We’ve seen myriad countries, like Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, Mongolia, China, South Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand, Australia, to name only a few, control this disease with testing, tracing, and isolation,” said Scarpino.
The vaccine also requires multiple doses, so Scarpino noted that “we need effective, and accurate systems, for monitoring uptake and ensuring individuals receive all the necessary rounds of inoculation. If our contact tracing systems aren’t working, we can’t control the disease and we can’t ensure individuals are being vaccinated properly.”
Getting back to “normal” takes all of us
Over the next few months, these factors will drive how quickly or how well things will return to normal for citizens, communities, and the economy.
“What we’ve seen over the past year is that society’s deepest challenges—from racism and its lasting effects, to chronically underfunding public health, or access to affordable healthcare and housing—largely dictated the course of this pandemic,” shared Scarpino.
“We can build a brighter, safer, and more productive future. One that will help us return to normal faster and prevent this from happening again. But it’s going to take all of us, working together and it has to start now.”
For more information, check out the Tableau COVID-19 Data Hub, where you can explore dashboards, find actionable insights, and visualize your own analyses.
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