BYU Operation Outbreak hosts virtual disease simulation

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BYU Operation Outbreak is a student association aimed to educate students about infectious diseases through experiential learning. It will be holding a virtual simulation of the spread of a disease similar to COVID-19 through participants’ phones. (Forrest Stull/BYU Operation Outbreak)

BYU researchers are hosting a campus-wide virtual outbreak of a disease similar to COVID-19 using phones as the “virus” distributers. The outbreak began Friday, Feb. 19.

The outbreak simulation is directed by the student association BYU Operation Outbreak in connection with Operation Outbreak, an outreach program by Sarasota Military Academy prep school and the Sabeti Lab at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT.

The group will run the simulation through an app available for Apple and Android. According to the BYU Operation Outbreak website, the app uses Bluetooth technology to “spread” a virtual virus between phones. It will include virtual masks and vaccinations to help simulate a real outbreak.

Participants will be able to track their progress during the simulation on the app, which will show them their number of contacts, virtual symptoms and health status. 

The simulation will last nine days, from Feb. 19 to March 1. Anyone interested in participating can sign up on the BYU Operation Outbreak website. The deadline is Thursday, Feb. 18 at 11:59 p.m.

BYU Operation Outbreak was founded by microbiology student Curtis Hoffmann. Faculty advisor and microbiology professor Brett Pickett said Hoffmann really took the initiative and ran with this project. “He reached out and set everything up.”

Pickett said Hoffmann connected with the founder of Operation Outbreak, Todd Brown, back in November 2020 to see if the BYU group could hold a simulation on campus. Brown said Operation Outbreak would love to hold a simulation on a college campus.

BYU Operation Outbreak hopes this experiential learning opportunity will help students better understand how their daily routine can expose them to any current or future pathogens, Hoffmann said.

The simulation will also focus on vaccine hesitancy through anonymous questionnaires given before and after the simulation. Hoffmann said BYU Operation Outbreak hopes it will show how vaccinations will help the campus reach herd immunity.

“It’s not a game. But it’s a way for us to model what herd immunity might look like at BYU when we reach a certain level of vaccinations,” he said.

Pickett said he hopes the group will learn more about how campus culture affects the spread of viruses. “We really want students to just live their regular lives,” he said, adding that doing so will help them collect the most accurate data as possible.

BYU campus project lead and molecular biology student Craig Decker said he is excited for students to take part in this campus-wide simulation. “Students will have an opportunity to learn more about vaccinations and see how many people we really come into contact with each day that could have the virus.”

Students from Kehone-France School in Metairie, Louisana participated in Operation Outbreak back in 2019. Though many schools have taken part in Operation Outbreak before, BYU Operation Outbreak is the first flagship of Operation Outbreak in the world. (Operation Outbreak)

The original Operation Outbreak started in 2016 when Brown wanted to teach middle school students the mechanisms for outbreak response and containment, Hoffmann said. This was in response to the Ebola outbreak happening at the time.

Hoffmann said the outbreaks usually include opportunities for students to role-play, keeping their community running while learning about biology and public health in the process.

After talking with professors in the College of Life Sciences Public Health Department, Hoffmann said BYU Operation Outbreak decided to do a simplified version. The BYU version includes a virtual virus and vaccines, rather than the role-playing situations that happened in previous in-person versions.

For the simulation to work, Hoffmann said participants must keep their Bluetooth on at all times. Data collected will be kept completely anonymous.

After the simulation is completed, Hoffmann said the data will be sent to the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard to be synthesized. Pickett said BYU Operation Outbreak hopes to hold a seminar once they have the results.

The group will also help host simulations at different schools in the Alpine School District in the coming months, Hoffmann said. To find more information and see live simulation statistics during the virtual outbreak, readers can visit the BYU Operation Outbreak website.

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