UI COVID-19 model

This model developed by University of Illinois physicist Nigel Goldenfeld and bioengineering Professor Sergei Maslov indicates there could be fewer than 500 COVID-19 cases on campus this semester.

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URBANA — With twice-a-week testing, most classes online, a mask requirement, contact tracing and an exposure-notification app, University of Illinois researchers modeling the coronavirus think that infections on campus can be held below 500 this semester.

Physicist Nigel Goldenfeld and bioengineering Professor Sergei Maslov, who developed models of the disease for the state and campus, said they think cases can be kept to a level that can be traced and won’t overwhelm the hospital system.

“There’s no single magic bullet to contain COVID-19 on campus,” Goldenfeld said Thursday during an online briefing. “But a concerted suite of mitigation measures is effective in minimizing the risk to a level that can be contained by public health measures, and a hybrid campus reopening seems doable.”

With the UI’s measures, Goldenfeld and Maslov’s model predicts a surge of cases as students arrive, and soon after, nearly 400 people may have to quarantine because of possible contact with an infected person.

“It’s very important that we have good hygiene” as the semester gets underway, Goldenfeld said.

Throughout the semester, 150 to 250 people may be quarantined at one time and the total number who have to quarantine could range from 500 to 5,000, modeling shows.

It also shows that the number of active cases at any one time should remain below 100.

Goldenfeld said there are limitations to the modeling and assumptions that had to be made.

But he described their model as a “worst-case scenario” because it assumes people will spread it randomly, rather than the more likely scenario of among certain friend groups.

“We did not model the friendship social networks of the students when they go outside and socialize in bars and restaurants,” he said. “So our calculation is, in fact, a worst-case scenario, because we assume more mixing outside of the university.”

When classes start Aug. 24, about two-thirds will be online. The other third will have some in-person component.

The UI is requiring everyone on campus to wear masks and get tested twice a week.

UI researchers developed a saliva-based test that is being administered at sites around campus, and the UI hopes to process 10,000 tests a day.

When students and faculty enter buildings, they’ll have to wear a mask and show their status on a mobile app, which is also being used to detect whether people have been near someone who tested positive.

Goldenfeld said this app will need to be adopted by at least 60 percent of the campus community to be effective.

“It’s very important for us that people use the app,” he said. “And therefore, we have made a great deal of effort to ensure that the app will, if it gives you an exposure notification, you should take it seriously because there’s a very high likelihood that you might, in fact, be infected.”

Chancellor Robert Jones said he has made decisions based on the model, including the one to raise the testing requirement from once to twice weekly.

The model indicated that with weekly testing alone, 35,000 people could get infected this semester, but with testing every three days and no other safety measures, the number of people infected would drop to almost 11,000.

With twice-a-week testing, most classes online, a mask requirement, contact tracing and the exposure-notification app combined, the total number of people infected this semester could drop to less than 500, according to the model.

“If we do all these things and if we take responsibility, we can mitigate the spread of disease and keep it at a level where we won’t have a surge on our hospital system, we won’t have a surge in terms of our isolation spaces that we’ve set aside,” Jones said.

Goldenfeld and Maslov have also developed a state model that has been used by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, including in his decision to issue the stay-at-home order in March.

Their model predicted that without the order, more than 30,000 Illinoisans with COVID-19 could have died by April.

That model now projects deaths and cases to increase for the next few months, especially in central and southern Illinois, which didn’t get hit as hard as northern Illinois in the initial wave of cases.


Ben Zigterman is a reporter covering business at The News-Gazette. His email is bzigterman@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@bzigterman).

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