Flu tracker: UMass biostatistician lands $3M to forecast flu

  • UMass Amherst biostatistician Nicholas Reich will be running a flu forecasting center for the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention with the help of a $3 million grant over five years. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/UMASS AMHERST

  • The Reich Lab at UMass Amherst works with other organizations in the CDC’s FluSight Network to provide the public and health care professionals with flu forecasts. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/UMASS AMHERST

Staff Writer
Published: 10/9/2019 10:27:45 PM

AMHERST — Every Monday evening at the University of Massachusetts, a graduate student sends influenza forecast data from the Reich Lab to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Within the next couple days, those numbers are published to the CDC website and used to inform nationwide flu forecasts.

To expand on this research and improve flu forecasting accessibility, UMass biostatistician Nicholas Reich, an associate professor in the university’s School of Public Health and Health Sciences, has been awarded up to $3 million over the next five years to operate a CDC Flu Forecasting Center of Excellence. Along with a research team at Carnegie Mellon University, the UMass group will be just one of two such centers in the country.

If researchers can easily and accurately communicate influenza forecasts, “people might change their behavior, which can reduce illness and save lives,” said Reich, an Amherst native who leads the flu forecasting collaborative from the Reich Lab at UMass.

“One of the goals of this effort is to have people understand influenza forecasts the same way they understand weather forecasting,” Reich said. “Right now, people check weather apps every day, sometimes multiple times a day, so that they can make informed decisions in their everyday lives.”

In the United States, there have been between 9 million and 43 million flu cases each year since 2010, according to the CDC. These cases have caused 140,000 to 960,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 and 79,000 deaths annually.

If people can easily track the trends of flu season, Reich said, they can use this information to reconsider certain decisions such as taking a sick child to the mall during peak flu season, adding hand sanitizer to their shopping lists, or making sure that everyone in the family gets a flu shot.

Reich’s research has created “some of the world’s most accurate models in recent years,” according to UMass. The Reich Lab works with other university teams and labs in the CDC’s FluSight Network to compile its data, Reich said, but UMass has led the efforts. Based on flu forecasting challenges, the CDC uses the model developed by UMass and its collaborators for use in informing state and local health officials, as well as the general public, of flu activity.

To continue developing predictive tools, Reich said that the team hopes to make better use of data, such as rapid flu test results, to incorporate into flu forecasts.

The Reich Lab currently sends out statements on how severe flu season is predicted to be over the next few weeks, when it is expected to begin, and a measure for the overall outlook of flu season. This information is already available online, but Reich hopes to develop data visualizations that make the information more accessible to the public.

In the future, the team may also look to create a smart phone application that allows people to determine their flu risk based on their location and other individual factors.

This data not only helps the general public, Reich said, but also assists healthcare professionals in determining staffing and when to reorder supplies.

The UMass Amherst Center of Excellence will also include researchers from other institutions and health care organizations, including Evan Ray, an assistant professor of mathematics and statistics at Mount Holyoke College.

The CDC will update flu forecasts every week beginning at the end of October through the end of flu season in May.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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