As the Department of Defense and the U.S. Army move into the “what’s next” stage of COVID-19 planning, they will have the help of three U.S. Military Academy professors who are working to model the outbreak and inform future planning.
Lt. Cols. Nick Clark, an assistant professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences, Michael Washington, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Life Science, and Chris Fuhriman, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, have been at Fort Sam Houston, Texas since early April to help U.S. Army North in its COVID-19 response efforts. Army North is U.S. Northern Command’s lead component for aligning military forces to requests for assistance from FEMA.
“We are part of a whole-of-nation response to COVID 19 and our Academy PhDs are an important part of the whole-of-Army response that has joined Army North to help us forecast what’s coming next,” said Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson, the commander of Army North and the Joint Force Land Component Command.
By combining their expertise in statistics, geography and biology, the three academy professors are building daily models of where the virus currently is, what the hotspots are and where it may be going next.
The models are also used to inform decision making by commanders throughout the country of how to respond and what they can expect the results of those responses to be, Clark said.
“We did something as a society,” he said. “We socially distanced. We made changes to our behavior. Now the important part is quantifying what that actually accomplished, because this isn’t going away.”
Clark initially began modeling the virus as part of the planning team at West Point. After academy leadership saw the benefit of the modeling, he said he was in essence loaned to ARNORTH to help inform the decision-making Armywide.
Washington, whose expertise is clinical microbiology and immunology, joined the team in Texas to apply a biological component to the model. His role is to take the raw data produced by Clark’s model and make sure it matches what they know about the virus itself and how it can be expected to behave.
He said the key is to compare COVID-19 to other similar coronaviruses instead of unrelated diseases such as the 1918 flu. By inputting what they know about the virus into the models, they are working to forecast where the next hotspots may be so the correct resources can be allocated to those areas.
“All viruses behave differently depending on their genetic structure and various properties that the viruses have,” Washington said. “The mathematical models can predict what will occur based on numerical data that we get from various sources. My role is to ensure that matches what we know of the virus itself.”
After Clark and Washington work together to develop the model, Fuhriman takes the charts and plots the data onto maps that can be easily digested by decision makers.
“It’s important to know where those hotspots are,” Fuhriman said. “Nick’s models based on Mike’s input can produce those areas that are hotspots. Then I take that data and show it visually and sometimes that helps commanders to see a little bit better.”
Developing the models is a constant process as they are only accurate until the next set of data comes in, Clark said, so they are watching the news on a daily basis and inputting the latest data sets into the model. Each iteration of the model is a combined effort of the three researchers who use their differing areas of expertise to forecast and map the impact of COVID-19 throughout the country.
“It’s going back to what makes interdisciplinary research good and beneficial. We’re in constant communication with one another,” Clark said. “We’ve kind of broken down the barriers. I don’t think any of us view us as you have the statistician, you have the geographer, you have the biologist. There is not a product that comes from me that I haven’t vetted through them first, or likewise.”
Although the time requirements of producing the models has forced them to have other members of their departments teach their courses for the remainder of the semester, all three professors said participating in the real-world application of their fields is something they can bring back to the classroom.
“It’s kind of neat to come in and to get out of the classroom setting for a minute and apply the specific tools of geography to an exact problem,” Fuhriman said. “That’s been really interesting to come in and see how that works. I feel like I could take some lessons learned here back to the classroom at West Point and say to the cadets in our geography classes, ‘Hey, this is one of the things that you might be asked to do at some point down the road.’”
The role of West Point is to educate future leaders of the Army and a byproduct of that mission is that the academy brings together experts in a wide variety of fields who can then be used as a resource to apply their knowledge to problems such as COVID-19.
“I think this shows the value of West Point as a resource of intellectual capital within the U.S. Army because we have the largest concentration of Ph.D.s, professors and experts in various fields all located in one place and we’re available to deploy to locations like this to help support operations throughout the big Army,” Washington said.