Researcher Developing a Tool to Gauge How Mobility Spreads a Pandemic

By Jeanne Leong

Rutgers University–Camden mathematics professor Benedetto Piccoli is among a team of multidisciplinary researchers from three universities working to create a tool to help mayors and governors assess the impacts of different social distancing levels and travel restrictions.

By showing how people move around locally, the tool could help to contain COVID-19 and aid economic recovery efforts.

Through a National Science Foundation grant, Piccoli is collaborating with engineering and computer science professors from Cornell University and Vanderbilt University to develop a mathematical model that government officials could use to manage human mobility during a pandemic or another crisis. Using publicly available data, the tool will simulate the effect of the spread of a virus in a particular geographical area by assessing the effect of transportation systems and evaluating the effect of strategic lockdowns and closures.

“Integrating data from virus infections, decision makers will be able to analyze different scenarios and optimize the strategy to contain the spread while avoiding too-severe measures,” says Piccoli, the Joseph and Loretta Lopez Chair Professor of Mathematics and vice chancellor for research at Rutgers‒Camden.

Benedetto Piccoli

Benedetto Piccoli

In his Rutgers‒Camden lab, Piccoli and his team are working on designing the models and running simulations. The current version of the model includes an economic evaluation of the impact of combined policies for lockdowns, testing, and contract tracing.

Piccoli’s prior research includes analyzing pedestrians’ walking patterns and the reasons people choose the paths they take, and showing how autonomous vehicles improve traffic flow and lower fuel consumption when in heavy traffic.

Two Rutgers‒Camden graduate students in the mathematics and computer science programs are working on the project. As the project progresses, undergraduates will begin processing data and designing the computer codes to simulate the various scenarios they will study using the model.

Piccoli’s team is working closely with the Senator Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs at Rutgers–Camden to apply the model to the eight South Jersey counties: Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, Ocean, and Salem.

In February, Piccoli, who was born and raised in Padua, Italy, heard from family and friends about the rapid spread of the virus in Italy. He swiftly became involved in finding ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

As the virus spread across the world, Piccoli wanted to use his expertise to assist in helping policymakers understand the impact of the virus.

“When I learned about the first cases showing up in the United States, I realized that the situation could become dramatic in very short time,” Piccoli explains.

In a collaboration with the Rand Institute, the Rutgers–Camden research team created models to provide data about a potential hospital bed shortage in South Jersey for the expected increases in people contracting COVID-19. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy cited a research brief the team issued in mid-March in a letter to President Trump about the need for quick interventions.

The Rutgers‒Camden study showed that New Jersey would not have enough hospital beds for COVID-19 patients if no actions were taken. New Jersey officials implemented measures during the first wave of the pandemic including setting up tents to screen people for COVID-19 and establish field medical stations to care for patients.

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