Travel restriction abstract made of tourist in form of of luggage with face mask, sunglasses and hat.

COVID-19 pandemic is worsened without coordination

Cool fall weather isn’t necessarily to blame for increasing spikes of COVID-19 infections, a UF research team says. Rather, the current wave of disease may stem from a lack of coordination to control public health, and people traveling between our 50 states.

The researchers, who are biologists and ecologists, built a conceptual model that shows how an uncoordinated response to the COVID-19 pandemic worsens outbreak cycles over time and across geographic areas, even when there are strong public health controls in place locally. Their work was published today as a research brief in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The model describes two populations that you might think of as two cities… or two states, or even two regions. Some level of travel shuffles people between the populations, and these travelers represent a fraction of the overall population which mostly stays within its own area.

The model shows that even with strong public health controls locally, if the two populations fail to coordinate their responses to the virus, and are coupled by people moving between the populations, then outbreaks of disease will swell cyclically in episodes that grow larger in relation to the degree of asynchronicity. The more uncoordinated the populations’ responses, the worse the outbreaks become. But when the populations coordinate and are in sync with their response to the virus, it dies out rather quickly.

Lack of coordination drives disease acceleration

UF medical geographer Gregory Glass contributed to the paper and compares what’s happening with COVID-19 cases in the U.S. today to a wildfire. The first few waves of outbreaks spared many people who were susceptible to the disease, but enough susceptible individuals remained to fuel subsequent outbreaks. 

“Everyone who fights wildfires knows that you can’t just walk away once the fire seems to be out,” says Glass, a professor in UF’s College of Liberal Arts and SciencesDepartment of Geography and the Emerging Pathogens Institute. “You have to come back and put out the hot spots. Otherwise, it flares back up.”

Now imagine the hot spots are smoldering disease outbreaks where many people are susceptible to COVID-19, and people are traveling to and from areas that are not free of the disease.

“The more people move between populations, and the more uncoordinated these populations’ responses are — no matter how good control is locally — the worse the disease gets,” Glass says.

Lack of coordination between populations in the model drives what the paper’s corresponding author, UF eminent scholar Robert Holt, calls the inflationary effect. This term describes the effects of transmission dynamics interacting synergistically over time and space and building into a force more powerful than either one would wield alone. Holt is a professor in UF’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Department of Biology, and he directs the Arthur R. Marshall, Jr., Laboratory of Ecological Sciences.

figure showing effects of coordinating virus response, or not

A figure from the paper graphs how coordination, or lack of it, between two populations affects control of the pandemic with either effective or ineffective local control measures. Effective and coordinated control measures will drive a local epidemic to extinction (panel c), but even with effective local control, a lack of coordination between populations means the epidemic will still grow due to the inflationary effect (panel d). Ineffective local control makes the pandemic grow, even with coordination between populations (panel e), but the pandemic accelerates when there is both ineffective local control and a lack of coordination between populations (panel f). (Courtesy of the authors.)

Coauthors Nicholas Kortessis and Margaret Simon, both postdoctoral biology researchers in the lab directed by Holt, add that regional cultural and environmental differences in the U.S. can lead to differences in disease dynamics.

“Knowing who to coordinate with is the first step, it’s not always the state next door,” Kortessis says. “People move a lot between Florida, Texas, and New York, for example.”

Even within states, coordination must take place to extinguish local flare-ups. Kortessis points to how multiple boroughs in New York worked together to drive a large spring outbreak down to low levels.

But scale matters, and local successes may be more easily secured than national ones.

“Our model hints at the possibility that larger countries will have a harder time controlling the pandemic,” Simon says. “And the U.S. in particular is struggling with that.”

The model also highlights why certain precautionary measures are vital to control the virus, despite the status of cases locally.

“I think people have a hard time being told what to do without being told why, myself included,” Simon says. “It may be intuitive to some to refrain from holiday travel, while it may be a harder pill to swallow to be asked to wear a mask, and practice social distancing when the disease is not as prevalent in your area. But our model tells people a bit of the why — it’s necessary to coordinate these measures to reduce the inflationary effect.”

The team’s work shows that the rate of spread accelerates when there is ineffective, uncoordinated control.

“What’s really striking about this is that we showed how this effect works without changing anything about the intensity of the control measures,” Kortessis says. “The only thing we changed is when we asked them to do it.”

In other words, coordination.

Influence of ecology upon disease modeling

Holt and Glass say that the synergistic effects of space and time in infectious disease transmission dynamics are underappreciated by most epidemiologists and disease modelers. They previously investigated these effects in studies of viruses carried by rats in Baltimore, where each city block effectively contained its own murine population. But some rats wandered from one block to another, and their travels linked the city-block populations into a meta-population, or one giant population composed of smaller but connected subpopulations.

“A while back we studied populations with rats — and colleagues have even examined this in the lab with the protozoan Paramecium — trying to answer questions about what makes some populations die out, which is what we call a sink, while other populations thrive, which is what we call a source,” Holt says. “But why do sinks persist? It turns out that emigration and immigration, or movement between source and sink populations is the answer.”

Using ideas honed from this previous work, they applied their theoretical mathematical modeling skills to the pandemic. Their new model is not based on epidemiological data, they note, it is meant to illustrate a concept.

“In this new work, the local sources and sinks are the states where different things are happening in different places and in different ways,” Holt says. “We highlight that population heterogeneity coupled with movement between populations leads to surprises. This shows that we need coordination between locations, lockdowns at the same time, and to focus on testing people who are traveling.”

A synchronized response to the virus turns both populations into sinks, where transmission dies out. But failing to coordinate turns both populations into episodic sources — and the inflationary effect across time and space amplifies disease spread and accelerates the pandemic.

 “If we can show this inflationary effect with just two linked populations, imagine what happens when it gets really complicated with greater numbers of interacting populations,” Glass says. “Bottom line, the surges we’re seeing now may not be due to a change in seasons. There’s no reason to invoke seasonality alone to explain waves in epidemics, it can also arise from the inflationary effect.”

This story was originally posted on UF Emerging Pathogens Institute.

Check out more stories about UF research on COVID-19.