Medical Detectives Drill Down Into Coronavirus Data

Mar 2, 2020

Health officials say figuring out the path of the coronavirus is key to controlling it. They have employed the help of spies, data scientists, epidemiologists and others to study who is likely to get COVID-19 and where it will travel next.

U.S. spy agencies are reportedly using undercover informants and eavesdropped electronicly to find out about the spread of the virus in Iran and India. Those are two countries the House Intelligence Committee learned Feb. 27 may not be taking the proper precautions. Iran has had the highest number of deaths outside China and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has hinted at a cover-up.

Containing the spread is key to slowing down COVID-19 and the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are using a variety of surveillance systems to gather information. University of Cincinnati adjunct associate professor of environmental health Florence Fulk says that's important.

"Because from that you can start talking about prevention and also protecting those who are not ill," she says.

One mystery for U.S. investigators is how a California woman got the virus without traveling to areas where it is. The CDC is using "contact tracing" to figure out who came within six feet of her who may have been infected. Fulk says epidemiologists are kind of like medical detectives. They have to determine who is at risk so those people can be on guard.

She wonders, "Are men becoming more ill than women? Do people who already have another disease like diabetes or COPD become more susceptible to the illness? Having that information can help inform both community members about their own individual risk."

UC epidemiologist and statistician Florence Fulk.
Credit Joseph Fuqua/University of Cincinnati

There are resources. Fulk points to the CDC website for the most up-to-date information.

How Specific Can Tracking Be?

University of Virginia researchers are collecting data and have created interactive online dashboards where graphs show where the virus is, recorded symptoms, age groups affected and even how one case spread to others within a country. Fulk is keeping up with the latest researcher, even looking at Chinese maps as she trains future epidemiologists at UC.