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An ISU professor with a history of successful COVID predictions reflects on a new study that takes into account human behavior

Olcay Akman
Illinois State University

The first COVID-related study that won Illinois State University mathematics professor Olcay Akman acclaim was a model that relied on numerical data — specifically, data that predicted how many lives would be lost to COVID-19 in 2020.

While that study was heavy on its emphasis of what the virus itself would do, a new study Akman spearheaded with the help of several international partners focused on a new emphasis: What would human behavior in response to the virus look like and how would social or political forces shape those responses?

"We quickly learned that COVID was going to take more than a medical modeling approach because, toward the end of 2020 and early 2021, it became a political and social problem as well," he said in an interview. "So all of our efforts of modeling based on the virus' behavior was no longer enough for projecting the course of the disease — we also needed to be aware of the politicization and the social and human behavior of the data."

Participants in the study, called the The Hard Lessons and Shifting Modeling Trends of COVID-19 Dynamics: Multiresolution Modeling Approach, included ISU students, as well as people affiliated with George Mason University in Virginia, Texas A&M University, and Central University of Rajasthan and Amity Institute of Applied Sciences, both of which are in India.

Akman said the group was put together "because COVID, now, has become a disease that now exceeds the expertise of any, one person."

"We needed to put together this group where each member contributes to a different aspect of the disease," he said. "This would be the model to end all models — that was our inside joke."

The major takeaway from the publication, Akman said, is that traditional modeling for infectious diseases takes into account an individual person's "frailty," or their health. In the case of COVID, a respiratory illness, he said, a person with habits such as smoking would be considered more "frail" than a person who abstains.

"Now, it turns out that frailty is not just the human condition — it's also regional, political and socioeconomic and race conditions as well," he explained. "For instance, in Illinois, when COVID first started, in March 2020, the state government immediately implemented a lockdown and we started using masks. On the other hand... South Dakota did not invoke did not implement mask mandates, or they resisted lockdowns... Now the question is: 'Suppose you and I are identical individuals, (we) have the same fitness, same immune strength, but you live in South Dakota and I live in Illinois. Does living in such South Dakota make you more frail?' This is that additional aspect of aspect that we brought with this with this publication."

The study was published in the Bulletin of Mathematical Biology in late November.

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.