London's Parliament Square is usually full of tourists this time of year, but the streets have grown much quieter as social distancing and self-isolation rules have kicked in — and it's helping slow the spread of the virus. (Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images)
You've probably seen the stories about people who are ignoring the advice to practice social distancing in the time of coronavirus. Maybe it's because they don't believe or don't understand why isolation works in a time of pandemic. They've heard the logic, and maybe even seen the famous "flatten the curve" visual, but somehow, they still don't get it.
Maybe they need a dose of math (in the form of an easy-to-use calculator). Anna Szczepanek, a PhD in mathematics from Jagiellonian University, Poland, and physicist Dominik Czernia got together to create just that. Szczepanek says she wanted to "show people the mathematical power of self-isolation."
Social Distancing Calculator
The duo's Social Distancing Calculator shows precisely how individual actions save lives.
"While there are many theories that can explain the macro implications, it's crucial for each one of us to understand it on a micro-level. After all, we’re dealing with a virus. You can save 399 people from infection and 14 lives in a month if you go under 100% self-isolation," Szczepanek told MNN.
She and Czernia based their calculator's variables on scientific research on how to control COVID-19 outbreaks. "In this study, scientists from the Centre for the Mathematical Modeling of Infectious Diseases [in London] introduced seven variables to simulate the outbreak, which you can see in our calculator. All of them are important in understanding the outbreak process to see which factors are most dangerous and how we can protect ourselves from infection," Szczepanek says.
To make the calculator more user-friendly, Szczepanek and Czernia added comments and extrapolated how many lives could be saved.
Czernia already had some practice making user-friendly calculators. For fun he put together the Vampire Apocalypse Calculator a few months back.
"Simulations of epidemic outbreak and vampirism have surprisingly many common features that I got familiar with," he says.
How the calculator works
Diving a little deeper into how the calendar works, Czernia says he and Szczepanek included seven variables that they divided into three groups: virus outbreak parameters, actions taken by the government and your own decisions.
- Initial cases: It is important mostly at the beginning of an epidemic. A small number of initial cases reduces the probability of uncontrolled virus spread.
- Reproduction number R₀. The expected number of people directly infected by one individual. Therefore it determines the rate of virus spreading.
- Asymptomatic cases: Some people can be virus carriers and still be able to spread it but will not have any symptoms of infection at all. The outbreak becomes more difficult to control since a government cannot find and isolate asymptomatic cases. That’s why self-isolation is so essential — even you can be now the unaware carrier!
- Transmission before symptoms: This parameter is very similar to asymptomatic cases but with one main difference. A virus carrier will eventually become sick so it will be isolated at some point and will not spread the virus in the community anymore.
- Delay in isolation process: It says how quickly a government reacts — potential infected examination and testing for the presence of a virus. Fortunately, most countries try to isolate sick patients as fast as possible so the spread of a virus between people can be effectively reduced.
- Careful with traced contacts: If a government knows who was close to the person with a positive coronavirus test, then it can react without any delay after symptoms onset. (They are quarantined immediately.)
- Isolation level: This is the essential point of the calculator. Nothing is more efficient than self-isolation at home. In that way, we avoid spreading a virus for certain, unlike the problem of lack of asymptotic cases isolation by government. Also, be aware the capacity of healthcare services is limited! It’s better to stay at home.
"We hope people use this calculator, not just for themselves, but share it with friends and family, especially those who don't find social distancing a rational approach to stopping this viral spread," says Czernia, who says that presenting complicated studies in an understandable way is something a calculator is well-suited to do.
Understanding the basics is life or death
The stakes are high. Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House's coronavirus response coordinator told the "Today" show, "If we do things together well, almost perfectly, we could get in the range of 100,000 to 200,000 fatalities. We don't even want to see that." If we don't do things well (meaning we ignoring social distancing and other advice), the worst-case projections show "between 1.6 million and 2.2 million deaths."
Some people have been asking if it's really "worth it" to stay so isolated. Czernia has the answer. He says, according to the calculator, "We show the specific number of how many people, by average, you can protect from infection and even save their lives. If your ignorance of isolation could lead to 14 deaths, how would you react?"