Texas A&M researchers using optimization models to build better pandemic policies

Published: Jul. 5, 2021 at 11:00 PM CDT
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas (KBTX) - Researchers at Texas A&M are using optimization modeling and frameworks to influence better quarantine policies and restrictions.

One primary focus is to reduce viral transmission while putting less of a burden on local economies, which was a major source of contention during the worst of the pandemic. What’s worse - the damage caused by the coronavirus itself, or the economic shutdown implemented to stop it?

That’s where the models created by Texas A&M Industrial & Systems Engineering Assistant Professor Hrayer Aprahamian and his team come in.

“Can we identify policies that will mitigate while preserving that structure?” Aprahamian said. “So essentially, that will translate to having less restrictions while still only identifying restrictions that are necessary in order to mitigate the spread. We are trying to reduce, as much as possible, the cut in the social fabric we have seen.”

Aprahamian says they use the models to figure out what a good policy looks like, then test it out in a simulation that uses real world data. They found the more localized policies can be tailored, the more effective they tend to be.

“The idea is that we want to use that information in order to make smarter decisions, rather than have a one-size-fits-all strategy,” Aprahamian said. “There’s a trade-off. The more you dig for local data, the more customizable it’s going to become, and hence more effective it is, but it becomes more difficult to enforce. It’s easier to have one rule for everyone.”

It’s that decision-making that frustrated many business owners throughout the pandemic. Richard Risbon, owner of Hullabaloo Diner, hopes this research will lead to better informed policy-making when it comes to restrictions.

“That was a lot of people’s frustrations in the fact that you could go to the supermarket but restaurants were shut down,” Risbon said. “It’s like if you’re going to walk around with 50 other people or more, why can’t we have people in the restaurant? We all felt that it was really not well planned out on how they picked and chose who was going to be able to open or not.”

At the very least, Risbon hopes this kind of research will at least allow policymakers to better explain the types of restrictions they place on certain businesses and why.

“I think it would be very positive for them to address the issues we just talked about. Why were restaurants, grocery stores, and nail salons picked to be so different?” Risbon said. “Hopefully, they’ll come up with a plan. This last pandemic, it seemed like they were throwing darts at different businesses to decide what they could do and when they could open, and it just wasn’t thought out very well.”

Aprahamian says these models work, and his team wants to work with governors, mayors, and other local leaders to help them figure out what’s best for their community. While a standard set of rules for each state works under some circumstances, sometimes those circumstances cater to more localized populations. Aprahamian points out that Brazos County is very different from Harris County.

“What we want to try to do is to build a model that learns, that basically sees how the current situation is, and then adapts accordingly,” Aprahamian said. “Early in the pandemic, we don’t have that information. That’s why we want to build that learns. When data is scarce, we can use that scarce data to make some simple decision, but as we learn, we’re going to have more and more sophisticated ways of combatting that pandemic.”

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