Planning for a pandemic

By Troy Rummler

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Sandia researchers used complexity science, modeling to create virus mitigation strategies

people in conference room looking at data on monitors
NATIONAL IMPACT — Sandia researchers worked with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on a 2005 report to model events that would impact critical infrastructure, including a global pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Brodsky)

In 2005, a report directed to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security outlined the potential effects of a global pandemic in prophetic detail. It was one of the ways Sandians laid the foundation for the U.S. response to COVID-19.

The report described an outbreak of a novel virus for which there would be no effective vaccine. It foretold needing to stem the spread through a combination of medical and social distancing measures, including wearing masks, establishing quarantines, closing schools and restricting travel. It described an overwhelming demand on hospitals and the health care system, and hundreds of billions of dollars in economic losses.

Industries that rely on significant face-to-face transactions — mass transit, restaurants, tourism, arts and entertainment — would experience the sharpest declines, according to Sandia researcher Nancy Brodsky, one of the authors.

The disease in the report, though, was imaginary: a hypothetical bird flu based on real viruses, fabricated at the behest of DHS. Department officials would later use the report to guide staff through a role-playing exercise to practice responding to the real thing.

“Absolutely the picture was to grapple practically with a pressing problem while it’s unfolding,” said Sandia researcher Walt Beyeler, who also contributed to the report.

The researchers used an emerging discipline called complexity science to write a realistic, detailed story for the faux pandemic. The team projected the time the virus would take to hit U.S. shores. They modeled how effective different interventions would be. They projected which businesses would be hardest hit and which populations would be most at risk. They calculated the effects of delayed interventions or incomplete interventions, such as people disregarding stay-at-home orders.

Nancy still recalls the key takeaways from their work.

“You need to protect the health care workers, and you need to provide daycare support for their children, because that is the infrastructure that people are going to depend on.”

Offshoot of infrastructure studies

The report wasn’t a one-off revelation. Researchers from Sandia, Los Alamos and Argonne national laboratories had already been collaborating for several years to break down how a pandemic would ripple through U.S. infrastructures. They also sought to understand how to mitigate its effects.

Their research was funded by DHS and performed under two DHS programs: the National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center and the Critical Infrastructure Protection/Decision Support System.

Some team members focused on specific infrastructure systems. Walt worked on financial institutions.

“(We studied) how one bank’s problem would become another bank’s problem. And, eventually, if enough banks have problems, then everyone has a problem,” Walt said.

Robert Glass, now retired from Sandia, led a team studying the impacts of social distancing. People cross paths in many social circles — school, work, home and commerce, to name a few. Robert’s team worked to understand how fast diseases pass through these different contact networks. They examined schools especially closely, according to Walt, because it was thought they could spread a flu quickly through society.

“One of the important insights (of the original research) is the value of understanding, at a finer scale, the actual contact networks,” Walt said. “And how the understanding of that structure can help you design a better intervention.”

Sandia researcher Sharon DeLand led a team that tied systems such as transportation networks and banks together to create a national model, showing how complex feedback loops are knit together.

Underground roots of social distancing

Some of the expertise came from an unexpected source: geoscience.

Several members of Sandia’s research team “started in the laboratory trying to figure out how to map the sources and movement of environmental contamination and support difficult social decisions,” said Erik Webb, a former senior manager over Sandia’s systems analysis research. “The environmental cleanup research programs had to balance economics and social requirements by asking: ‘How do you optimize the cleanup? How do you clean up the contamination while pumping the least amount of water? How do you scoop the least amount of dirt?’”

Their experience predicting uncertain futures with relatively small amounts of data was analogous to combatting a pandemic, Erik said.

Nancy, who now manages Sandia’s geochemistry department, said geoscience training also gave them a knack for abstract thinking. For example, oil and gas research commonly deals with geologic systems far underground that can’t be seen, and thus, are interpreted indirectly.

“We were all accustomed to dealing with things we couldn’t see,” she said.

As directives from DHS changed, members were pulled onto other projects and direct pandemic-
related work dissipated. However, elements of their research evolved. Walt is now a leading member of Sandia’s Complex Adaptive Systems of Systems initiative, or
CASoS, an outgrowth of his DHS research. He continues to model scenarios and their effects on national infrastructure.

The art of persuasion

The pandemic research lives on in the national policy it influenced. However, from that point, it was the job of others to put that policy into practice.

From 2007 to 2017, Bradley Dickerson, now a Sandia senior manager, worked for DHS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, developing national policies and operational plans to implement non-medical interventions like social distancing for a pandemic.

“We knew at the time many aspects of social distancing were extremely unpalatable,” Bradley said.

Screening people at borders and ports was considered a piece of social distancing because the goal was to identify potentially infected people. That way, they could be separated from the rest of the population. Bradley worked to persuade airport and airline officials of the importance of additional screening measures during a pandemic.

The measures would cause delays and would have negative economic consequences for these industries.

“We worked very closely with the air carriers and airport authorities to make sure they knew they were being heard,” Bradley said. He was also tasked with having similar discussions abroad.

“Our main goal was trying to protect American citizens, and we were trying to do that as good global citizens. And we thought that the best way to do that was to have a concerted international approach.”

His team additionally worked with other departments and agencies across the federal government and with states and territories to help them create their own pandemic response plans. Now, Bradley is serving as an adviser to Sandia’s Labs-wide COVID-19 response team, including ES&H and Sandia’s medical team.

“The problem is you need a complete approach to (social distancing),” said Bradley. “There are many facets.”

Walt also is supporting COVID-19 response with modeling research. His work initially helped leaders anticipate demand for resources at hospitals. Now he is modeling policies that could be put in place at hospitals to protect workers as communities ease out of strict quarantine conditions.