COVID-19 is a pandemic that requires systems thinking and solutions

I was on the INFORMS Resoundingly Human to talk about COVID-19 and first responders. You can listen here:

In the podcast, I discuss supply chains, rationing resources, and disaster planning, and I note how everything old becomes new again. For example, the US is not experiencing its first N95 mask shortage. Systems concepts are important for understanding how to prepare for and respond to a pandemic.

In this post, I want to dig deeper into systems concepts. I wrote a quick primer on systems thinking and explain why systems concepts are important for understanding the COVID-19 pandemic.

What is a system?

A system is a set of things—people, vehicles, basketball teams, hospital beds, or whatever—interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time.

Here are three examples:

(1) A car is just a vehicle. A collection of cars can be a traffic jam.

(2) A single ventilator can be used to treat a patient. A hospital’s collection of beds and ventilators are available for treating patients. When a surge of patients require these resources, they may have to wait and queue for these limited resources.

(3) An N95 mask protects first responders from infectious disease when they treat patients. A supply chain of personal protective equipment (PPE) can have delays and shortages, leading to first responders not having the N95 masks they need at any given moment.

How is systems engineering relevant to COVID-19?

COVID-19 is absolutely a medical challenge. It is also a systems challenge that require systems thinking and systems solutions. In systems, decisions are not made in isolation, but rather, decisions are interrelated.

My discipline is operations research: the science of making decisions using advanced analytical methods. Systems require a series of decisions to operate effectively with or without patient surges in a pandemic. Operations research provides the analytical tools required to design and operate systems more effectively and efficiently.

In systems there are many trade-offs and complicated interactions. Here are examples of how systems engineering is important now:

(1) If a first responder does not have adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) such as latex gloves and N95 masks, they are at higher risk from acquiring COVID-19. If they do, they will not be able to treat patients in the coming months, thereby reducing the number of first responders (a critical resource) in the future. This informs how responders should treat patients and ration resources now.

(2) Surges in COVID-19 cases may lead to more patients requiring ventilators than are available in hospitals. This could lead to rationing and painful choices that would not be considered without a patient surge.

Systems concepts will continue to be important in the future. Here is a third example:

(3) One person who gets a vaccine has immunity. If enough people receive vaccines or have immunity from previously having had the disease, we can achieve herd immunity and eliminate person-to-person transmission of the disease even among those who do not have immunity. With herd immunity, the benefits are greater than the sum of its parts.

What can systems thinking tell us about the fatality rate for COVID-19?

It depends. We know that it depends on age, gender, and co-morbidities. The fatality rate is not an exogenously given number, but rather it is a function of the resources available for treating patients, which is endogenous to the system. The fatality rate for COVID-19 is a systems concept. If the number of infected individuals is low enough so that hospitals can handle the surge and give every patient the treatment they require, the fatality rate will be lower (relatively speaking. In absolute terms it will still be too high). The fatality rate will be a lot higher if hospitals are over capacity and have to ration beds and ventilators.

How are my personal decisions related to healthcare systems in the COVID-19 pandemic?

The resources in our healthcare system are being stretched to the limit. The resources include personnel (physicians, nurses, first responders), hospital beds, ventilators, and personal protective equipment. When there are not enough resources to give every COVID-19 patient the best treatment they require, physicians will have to ration resources and make tough choices. Our efforts to delay the second wave as long as possible and to reduce the number of people who require medical treatment will save lives. Flattening the curve is a systems concept aimed at reducing painful tradeoffs and complicated interactions.

How can we prevent the next wave?

Preventing the next wave of any infectious disease is a numbers game. I do not know how to practice medicine but I know how to crunch numbers. The key is to lower the overall transmission rate. The best way to lower the transmission rate varies according to the disease, but there are some basic principles for preventing a disease outbreak from becoming another wave of a pandemic. Best practices include better hygiene practices such as washing your hands and your mobile phones with soap and water, and covering your cough. Limiting the number of people you come in contact with reduces the opportunities for transmission. All those trips to the store to buy extra toilet paper increase one’s chance of contracting COVID-19.

What can we do to prepare for a second wave?

A second wave in a prolonged pandemic is not going to be easy for many of us. I use mathematical models and analytics in my research, and I find them to be useful in my everyday life. My research tells me that I make better decisions with better information and that I should use limited resources wisely. When I think about what it means to apply these principles to my decisions in a pandemic, I realized I can achieve both of these goals by gathering up to date information and following instructions from official, trusted sources such as local and state governments, local police and emergency medical service departments, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I plan to use the official sources to limit what I think about, worry about, and do in any upcoming waves of the pandemic. We are all inundated with conflicting information and advice from many sources, and it is taking its toll and potentially leading us to make unsafe choices such as making repeated trips to grocery stores to stockpile items we do not need.


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