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Coronavirus In Minnesota: Researchers Explain Their Method Of Predicting COVID-19's Potential Deadliness

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Different areas of the country have been hit by coronavirus (COVID-19) in different ways, with metro areas taking the brunt of the punch thus far. However, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases is to be taken with a grain of salt, as the country does not have an adequate number of testing kits available. Researchers in Minnesota are at work predicting the spread of coronavirus here -- and on Friday they released information about how they do their jobs in an effort to be more transparent.

Gov. Tim Walz has been relying on their data to make multiple executive orders amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The team of researchers behind the information comes from the University of Minnesota. They partnered with the Minnesota Department of Health to create Minnesota-specific numbers early on in the outbreak.

"The Minnesota model estimates, with some uncertainty, the number of daily COVID-19 cases, how many people are in the ICU, and how many people die from COVID-19 in Minnesota. The model predicts approximately when the most people will get COVID-19 (the peak of the epidemic), how many people that will be, and when more people will need ICU care than the number of ICU beds that are available." -Minnesota COVID-19 Model Researchers

Their model's population has the same distribution of ages and underlying conditions as Minnesota's population.

It is used to simulate how well various social distancing measures can slow down the spread of the disease, or even end the pandemic. It also tracks rates of hospitalization and mortality, projecting daily counts of positive COVID-19 cases, ICU bed needs, and deaths.

Other factors taken into consideration include the time between a person's infection and symptoms, the percentage of infections that are detected, and the number of hospital beds available.

"The model uses data from countries and U.S. states where community spread of COVID-19 started earlier. Using the available evidence on the virus, combined with Minnesota-specific data, the model aims to understand how the epidemic will play out." -Minnesota COVID-19 Model Researchers

The University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation has also released models of their own -- and they project far fewer cases and deaths for Minnesota.

This was alluded to by Minnesota Senate Major Leader Paul Gazelka when he criticized Gov. Tim Walz's handling of the health situation on Thursday.

However, during the MDH's presentation on Friday, Minnesota researchers said that the disparities are not unexpected, because the University of Minnesota's predictions come with some uncertainty, and "the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) model assumes far more restrictive social distancing measures implemented for longer periods of time. It also projects outcomes over the course of four months as opposed to a full year, and it does not explicitly account for the elevated risk of illness and death associated with underlying health conditions."

Currently, Minnesota modeling suggests that the pandemic will have a long-term impact on Minnesotans "because of how easily the virus spreads and how fatal it can be."

Different scenarios forecast a range of 22,000, to 41,000, and even as much as about 50,000 deaths in the upcoming months -- coupled with intensive care unit demands between 3,300 and 4,500 -- based on varying levels of success with social distancing.

Social distancing guidelines are being used in order to delay the peak of cases, hospitalizations, and needed ICU care.

Researchers say that spreading out the number of cases over a longer period of time – would require long-term social distancing measures -- but it would also make the epidemic last longer.

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The research was presented by associate professor Eva Enns and associate professor Shalini Kulasingam from UMN's school of Public Health, along with state health economist Stefan Gildemeister.

They'll continue to refine and expand on their model, adding that they are adjusting modeling when new information becomes available.

While the exact code of the model has not been released, the team says they plan to share it with the public in the future, along with a more "reader friendly" version of their findings.

The analysis does not account for economic costs or other side effects; such as mental health. Click here to learn more about the Minnesota COVID-19 Model.

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