U of M research team helping Minnesota in the fight against COVID-19

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In recent weeks, even before Minnesota’s "stay-at-home" deadline, an elite team has been working behind the scenes, researching the "what-ifs" of the state’s COVID-19 outbreak.

"This is a pretty infectious virus," says University of Minnesota Epidemiologist Shalini Kulasingam. "We need measures in place in order to protect our most vulnerable population from getting infected."

Kulasingam is part of a team of seven health specialists who are data-mining, researching everything they can find about the coronavirus.

They’re also using a mathematical computer program to put together models of what the virus could do and how preventative measures could lower the number of infected Minnesotans.

"A model is basically a computer simulation of what we think might happen in real life," Kulasingam explained. "What kind of outcomes might we expect if we don’t do anything, or if we ‘stay in place’ for two weeks."

Their job is to give Governor Tim Walz key information about the virus, even the unpleasant news, for example, that if nothing is done, 2.4 million Minnesota residents could be infected and 74,000 could die.

But the team has also uncovered some hopeful findings.

The data shows that social distancing alone could cut the number of coronavirus cases in half.

More significant, that a stay in place order combined with social distancing could drop that number by 70%.

"We have a series of equations. We think of how does this virus work? What are the stages of infection?" Kulasingam said. "What kind of estimates can we get from studies that have been done, and plug them in to get a sense of what are the dynamics of this virus."

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The team uses information from the Minnesota Department of Health, and from research sources like medical journals, published articles and case histories of similar diseases.

Kulasingam said it’s not a perfect science.

But she said if safety measures are put into place, the virus’s peak could be pushed back, allowing intensive care units to better prepare.

Hospitals would also have a fighting chance to stockpile personal protective equipment like masks, goggles, gowns and surgical gloves, before the virus begins to peak.

During a briefing Wednesday, the governor said there were more than 200 open ICU beds.

"So much of what we’re doing now, and why those drastic measures that are put into place are meant to flatten that curve," Walz told reporters. "Thinking about what things look like going forward, to be able to ramp up that capacity should we need to."

Because of the COVID-19 threat, the U of M team has been working remotely, using video conferencing to share information.

Kulasingam said she’s grateful she and her colleagues are able to help in the fight against the virus.

She said the research is "exciting and terrifying."

"This is why science can be helpful," she declared. "It’s a great honor for all of us, but also buying us time to then figure out what is the next step."