Going Beyond Weather Alerts

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We came across this fascinating article in the NYTimes, recently, about how the Centers for Disease Control have created a Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics, which would work similarly to the National Weather Service, providing risk information about infectious disease. 

The CFA, as it’s being called, will be headed by folks from Johns Hopkins, the Harvard School of Public Health and others and will start with about $200 million in public funding. That’s a far cry from the billions that have been invested in weather forecasting, but it’s a start. And it’s worth remembering that weather forecasting was once a dark art that seemed more of a miss than a hit: 

Weather forecasting was once primitive and unreliable. But after decades of sustained investment…the science improved. Weather models became more mathematically rigorous; weather forecasts more accurate… A century ago, natural disasters were…mysterious, unpredictable… Today, hardly anyone gets dressed without checking their favorite weather app.

Getting good results won’t be easy, but there are so many opportunities for improvement, it’s realistic to expect better forecasts in just a few years. Here are some of the ways things will get better:

  1. Better data. Until recently, there were no standardized reporting formats for hospitals to send data to the CDC or other government agencies. And even today, the guidance that’s provided by the Federal Government makes it clear that we’ve got a long way to go before we get to standardized, automated data collection that health care providers and public health departments can transmit easily and agencies process efficiently. 
  2. Consistent effort. Up until now, academic and other research in disease prevention have been largely driven by subject-specific and time-limited grants. So when Covid (and earlier disease outbreaks, such as H1N1) hit, many researchers in the field dropped what they were doing and pitched in on the crisis of the day. But when that crisis passed, they went back to their day jobs and much of what they developed was lost. 
  3. Centralized coordination. Just as in 1970, when the National Weather Service Atmospheric Administration gathered different weather-forecasting groups together and enabled forecasters and decision makers to work together, the CFA will bring together academic and government efforts to improve forecasts, public policy implications and the way those are communicated.  It will also spread the wealth of information to jurisdictions and decision makers who were on their own during the early days of the Covid crisis: 

Here’s how Caitlin Rivers and Dylan George describe it: 

The National Weather Center at the University of Oklahoma has a unique structure that enables academics to work closely with federal employees and develop a mutual understanding of respective challenges and capabilities. In the same manner, the [CFA] would work with the CDC, nonprofit organizations such as the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, public health departments in all 50 states, and the National Governors Association to improve outbreak science and analytics, decision-making during outbreaks, and the data and technologies needed to support these efforts.

So how will this affect mass notification, including Hyper-Reach and its customers?

While it will take a few years, it’s not a stretch to imagine emergency alert systems sending messages to key constituencies (government employees, health care workers, employers, etc.), vulnerable populations and even the public at large about risky situations and preventative measures. These could be modeled on air quality or heat index alerts, for example.  As Rivers and George put it: 

Just as people rely on weather reports to know when to bring an umbrella, CEFA forecasts could make it easier to decide whether to telework during flu season or whether to wear a face covering. People want to know how to keep themselves and their families safe, and providing information to help them do so would be an enormous advance for public health.

While this may seem like science fiction, we’re old enough to remember when the day’s weather forecast seemed like a 50/50 proposition and packing a picnic lunch often resulted in disappointment and frustration when the rain came.  So we;re looking forward to helping disseminate the new and better information we expect to come from this effort. 

If even a fraction of the new center’s visions are realized, when the next pandemic strikes, scientists and decision makers will have well-established connections and clear mechanisms for collaboration. They will also have more robust data sets and a trove of pandemic-forecasting research to draw from. And they may, at last, be equipped to talk to one another — and to the public — about what they’re doing and why it matters.

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