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Iowa State University researching COVID-19 spread and effectiveness of vaccine rollout

Claus Kadelka and Audrey McCombs created a network model to look at the impact of certain policies to help predict the spread of the coronavirus.

AMES, Iowa — A pair of researchers at Iowa State University have been hard at work since the beginning of the pandemic, working to get a better understanding of how the coronavirus spreads and more recently, the effectiveness of the vaccine rollout. 

Claus Kadelka an assistant professor of mathematics, and Audrey McCombs, a graduate student in statistics, have been studying the spread of COVID-19 since March.

The pair created a network model to look at the impact of certain policies to help predict it.  

Kadelka said it is based on qualitative data, such as friends and families being more likely to spread the virus to each other instead of spreading it to random people.

"My friends are more likely to share the same friends than some random strangers," Kadelka said. "So there are these little bubbles of friendships around town around communities."

A portion of the pair's study was submitted to a scientific journal in mid-April and was accepted in September.

More recently, Kadelka said their research moved forward with analyzing the vaccine rollout.

The process places importance on making sure those in high-risk groups, like the elderly, are vaccinated before low-risk groups. However, Kadelka said he thinks the level of importance with vaccinating groups should be based on people in the risk group's daily encounters.

"You already know that from pre-pandemic empirical studies, people in their twenties-to-forties have substantially more contact on a daily basis than elderly people," Kadelka said.

Author summary Public health policies implemented to reduce the effects of COVID-19 can interact with each other, enhancing or undermining the effects of other policies employed simultaneously. Here, we present a mathematical model that incorporates many of the important characteristics of the outbreak, including differences in risk behavior and social activity due to demographics, and uncertainties related to asymptomatic cases.

Based on those studies and the network model which helps show how different bubbles spread the virus, policymakers should think about giving people in low-risk groups more attention and a higher priority in the next vaccination phases, according to the researchers. 

"If the low-risk people have ten times more contact during this pandemic than the high-risk people, then it very likely makes sense to focus vaccination on the low-risk people," Kadelka said. "Because by focusing on them you can curb the spread of the virus significantly more."

The research team noted this portion of research is still being studied and in no way aims to discredit other scientists behind the current vaccine rollout. 

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