When is it safe to reopen countries amidst pandemic lockdowns? It’s a big question that many have been grappling with for months. It’s a battle between the need to unchain the economy—in support of livelihoods and putting food on tables—and the need to ensure the health and safety of entire populations.
To complicate matters further, public health recommendations are not easily available on the subject, says Nasar Ahmed, professor and founding chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics in the Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work.
While guidelines are available about how to reopen, there isn’t much information on when to reopen, Ahmed explains. “There are no published models or directives to inform policy about when to reopen schools, tourism, entertainment and other sectors.”
To address the gap, a group of experts and researchers comprising primarily FIU professors, students and alumni came together to develop a data-driven tool to assist in making the tough decisions.
The project began when Abu Shonchoy, an assistant professor of economics in the Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs, early in the pandemic began hearing about countries enforcing closures as part of safety precautions.
“If you’re shutting down the economy, when are you going to open it?” he began wondering. “In some countries many people are living hand-to-mouth, so many people could die of hunger. It’s a balancing act between saving lives and livelihoods.”
The interdisciplinary team, which also includes FIU Ph.D. candidate in epidemiology Abir Rahman in addition to other scientists in the United States and abroad, studied trends in countries across the world that appeared to reopen successfully—those that did not see a spike—and collected data. The group’s analyses led to the creation of a model that incorporates both public health concerns and economic considerations. The resulting Large Scale Reopening (LSR) index provides guidance for countries or other populations areas, and is particularly valuable for low-resource countries.
Countries with strong economies, Ahmed explains, often have centralized health care systems and can usually access information about available hospital beds, ICU statistics and other useful data. Low-resource countries, on the other hand, often do not have centralized systems and lack access to important information. That’s where the LSR index shines.
“The LSR index is simple and feasible,” Ahmed explains. “It’s a flexible tool kit that can be easily adapted for low- to middle-income countries.”
According to the team, the intersection of the daily infection rate and the daily recovery rate–when the two are equal–represents a crucial point in the process. If the infection rate continues to fall, countries may be able to safely reopen in as few as 20 days.
Shonchoy adds that while work is still in progress and subject to change as experts learn more, the index remains a first step in the right direction.
“This toolkit will be extremely useful,” he says, “Even at the localized level, if someone is looking at locking down a street or zip code area, or for state level decision makers, they can use it. It is a data-driven decision-making process.”
Ahmed recently discussed the index at FIU’s virtual Global Health Consortium’s conference, and participants from various countries expressed interest.
The tool is already being used, and the team plans to post it online in the coming weeks to invite even more public health officials to enter the pertinent data and receive the index’s response on the spot.