DEC 27, 2021
Running the numbers: West Virginia University data science experts aid state's pandemic response
OCT 10, 2021
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (WV News) — Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, a small but dedicated team of data scientists at West Virginia University has quietly played an important behind-the-scenes role in the state’s response efforts.
The team has used data models to estimate personal protective equipment needs at health care institutions, has developed applications used by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources and has been tasked with reviewing data the state receives from federal agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Brad Price, an assistant professor of business data analytics, and Katherine Kopp, data administrator for Data Driven WV, who are both based out of the WVU John Chambers College of Business and Economics, said they have been working with the state since the onset of the pandemic.
“It’s been in different areas,” Price said.
“It’s been everything — from PPE forecasting to hospitalization forecasting to just any off-the-shelf questions that we need to piece together data sets to helping calculate different values from epidemiological models,” Price said.
The team built the system launched in January that the state’s Joint Interagency Task Force for COVID-19 Vaccines relied on to determine where vaccine doses should be distributed, Kopp said.
“Most of what was being used prior to January were all federal systems and they weren’t really working for our Joint Interagency Task Force and the West Virginia National Guard,” she said. “So, we got called in to produce a homegrown, customized solution.”
Their solution allowed coordination between the National Guard’s distribution hubs throughout the state, Kopp said.
“We developed a system that allowed them to track demand of vaccines, as well as inventory at those five hubs coming in and out,” she said.
In addition to Price, who serves as chief data scientist, and herself, who serves as senior data scientist, the team includes Data Driven WV’s Dariane Drake and has been assisted by WVU students, Kopp said.
“Throughout all of this we have also had some student support at the undergrad and graduate levels, as projects have arisen and we have the need for that,” she said.
National Guard members have also contributed invaluable support to the team’s projects, Price said.
“It’s one of the really cool things about the National Guard in West Virginia — just how much expertise they have because of their civilian roles and what they do in their civilian lives,” he said. “It’s a really cool thing that I’m not sure enough states utilize.”
Initially, the team offered its services to the state on a volunteer basis, Price said.
“And then it turned into grant funding,” he said. “I won’t say it’s a traditional research project, but there’s a lot of R&D that goes on behind this. Which is kind of one of the reasons that a university is a good place for it, because there’s a lot of work that is not easy and is not standard.”
In September 2020 the team was collectively awarded the West Virginia National Guard’s Civilian Service Achievement medal for their PPE modeling.
“It’s humbling to realize that when what you do every day has the ability to really help people,” said Drake at the time. “It’s an honor, but the best feeling is knowing that we made a difference in our state.”
The team most recently came to the public’s attention on Sept. 24, when state officials reported the CDC had been “double-counting” some of the state’s vaccinated individuals since May.
James Hoyer, who leads the JIATF, said the WVU team would be working alongside data scientists from the DHHR to audit the CDC’s information to ensure its accuracy.
In order to accomplish this, the team started by working directly with exerts at the CDC, Price said.
“We went through the source code with the CDC to start asking the real, deep questions about how we are calculating this and how we are calculating that,” he said. “Then we got with our partners at DHHR.”
He and Kopp meet virtually with the DHHR’s data team each morning to review the latest data, Price said.
“We get with them every morning and we look at the data that they pull out of their system and we know now — because we’ve been though the source code at the CDC — what the CDC is reporting to us every day.”
The CDC’s data provides information about vaccines administered through federal pharmacy program partners and other federal providers like VA facilities.
This data is compared to and combined with the DHHR’s data to create a daily “holistic number” of how many residents received first vaccine doses, how many residents are fully vaccinated and the other metrics that appear on the DHHR’s COVID-19 dashboard, Price said.
“And the other thing we do is to track daily changes,” he said. “Just to make sure there wasn’t a surge or some data that got pulled or duplicated.”
The word “unprecedented” is often overused in relation to the pandemic, but it’s a most accurate word to describe many of the problems the WVU team has been asked to tackle, Price said.
“We’re trying to build systems while this is ongoing and we’re trying to ask these questions,” he said. “You need to give the best information possible, and that’s something that we’ve tried to do to the best of our abilities.”
Price and Kopp agreed their partnership with the state is likely to continue, even after the pandemic is no longer a day-to-day issue.
“I don’t see it stopping any time soon,” Price said. “This has exposed big problems. This has exposed things that we need to go fix and has exposed things that we want to make sure that the next time this happens we are at least more prepared than we were.”
Many of the technologies and applications developed by the WVU team could be used to solve other problems and respond to other types of emergencies, Price said.
“Some of the stuff that we’ve done doesn’t necessarily have to be applied to health care,” he said. “It would be applied to when we have floods, when we have snowstorms that knock power out.”
When asked what tools or resources — including money, additional researchers and experts — would aid them in their work, Price and Kopp gave the same answer.
“My wish list is for people to go get vaccinated,” Price said. “Go get your shot so we can actually start to focus on the hindsight stuff. So that we don’t have to worry about Delta variant hospitalizations and we don’t have to worry about what that next phase is. It becomes where we are actually able to go back and assess instead of having to be reactive to what’s coming.”
“I would echo what Brad said,” Kopp said. “At this point, resource-wise, we need more people to get vaccinated.”