Virus simulation results show BYU pandemic-related policies are effective

Participants in the BYU Operation Outbreak simulation show their phones open to the Operation Outbreak app. The results of the simulation hosted between Feb. 19 and March 1, 2021 were presented in a seminar given on April 8, 2021. (Todd Jackson)

An Operation Outbreak virus simulation found that BYU pandemic-related policies helped slow transmission of a virtual “virus.”

Curtis Hoffmann founded the BYU Operation Outbreak student association when he teamed up with Operation Outbreak co-creators Todd Brown and Pardis Sabeti, bringing the simulation to BYU and local K-12 schools.

The BYU microbiology and molecular biology department hosted a seminar on April 8 presenting the results from the simulation hosted between Feb. 19 and March 1. The three speakers at the seminar were BYU microbiology professor Brett Pickett, BYU public health professor Len Novilla and Andres Colubri from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

Participants tracked their progress on the Operation Outbreak app, which showed them their number of contacts, virtual symptoms and health status. There were also virtual masks and vaccines available during parts of the simulation.

“The goal was to provide the participants, whether they were students or faculty, with an experiential learning opportunity, ideally, to increase awareness of what these infectious diseases are and how they’re spread,” Pickett said.

Colubri, a computational scientist, described how the simulation tracked participants’ interactions through Bluetooth using the app, allowing them to simulate COVID-19 transmission rates.

“The simulated graph shows that transmission was quite low in general during the experience at BYU even when participants were still susceptible without the virtual vaccine,” Colubri said.

Todd Jackson
Students hold two phones showing the Operation Outbreak app home screen, each displaying a smiley face showing they are symptom free. (Todd Jackson)

While the data from the simulation can teach valuable lessons specific to BYU, Pickett said there are limitations to how it can be applied. Thirty percent of participating students and faculty said they were hesitant, to a certain degree, of receiving the vaccine. However, only 60 of the 610 participants received the vaccine in the simulation.

Pickett said vaccines might not have been a high priority for participants because they were offered as a simulation. He also said mask use was lower than expected, but this was probably because of how wearing them virtually was set up. Participants were assigned a QR code each day and had to search for it in a database of pictures, which took time and wasn’t very user-friendly.

Another reason for the simulation was to show the impact one person can have during a pandemic, Pickett said. As an experiment, Pickett walked around one of his classes while virtually “infected.” He said this experiment showed that if one person is sick, symptomatic and not taking appropriate measures, they can spread the virus effectively.

“In the fall, BYU had a lot of cases among the student population. But since then, I think we’ve all learned how to manage (the virus) better,” Pickett said. However, people should still be thoughtful of those their actions may affect, he added.

Both Pickett and Novilla promoted getting the vaccine during the seminar, showing data on its effectiveness against the virus. Even with the vaccine becoming more readily available, Pickett told students to continue to make well-informed decisions. He said he hopes the combination of vaccines and diligence will help students to open up and trust each other again.

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