New online tool shows how small group gatherings can increase COVID-19 infections in MN

The tool developed by Associate Professor Eva Enns uses key data, such as group size, to predict how many new infections and hospitalizations gatherings could trigger in the state.

Charlie Plain | December 21, 2020

When it comes to COVID-19, it can be difficult to see how small group gatherings can lead to an increase of cases across the state. Most people aren’t educated in infectious disease dynamics and hardly anyone alive has lived through a pandemic. To make the concept easier to understand, Associate Professor Eva Enns created an online tool to demonstrate how individual social gatherings can accumulate to significantly raise the number of new COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations occurring state-wide.

Eva Enns smiling
Associate Professor Eva Enns.

“The idea is that any one small social gathering by itself might seem to pose just a small risk,” says Enns. “But if everybody does that, such as on a holiday, then a small risk taken lots of times adds up to thousands of new COVID-19 cases for our already overburdened healthcare system. We’re hoping the tool helps people make a connection between their individual behavior during the pandemic and what it could mean collectively for Minnesota.”

Users of the web-based tool can input key data, such as group size, the state’s current coronavirus infection rate, and the percent of groups of similar composition getting together during the same period. The tool then predicts the number of new infections likely to emerge from each gathering and the total number of new diagnosed and undiagnosed cases along with those requiring hospitalization for the state.

“We want the tool to help people think beyond their own risk and think about the cumulative risk if other people do the same thing as well,” says Enns. “In a typical year, a high percentage of Americans celebrate major holidays with a gathering and meal with others. This year is obviously different. But what our calculations show is that even if only 5% of households still celebrate by gathering with others outside of their household, it could result in thousands of new infections and hundreds of hospitalizations for our hospitals, which are already operating in crisis.” 

Enns built the tool based on recent pandemic data from the Centers for Disease Control, the State of Minnesota, and other sources. She is currently working with collaborators internationally to adapt the tool to other geographic settings. 

“The math behind the tool is actually quite simple — you are basically flipping lots of coins with different weights to determine the predicted outcome. But what that simple math communicates is that our individual actions matter and collectively we can determine what this holiday season looks like for our neighbors and our health care workers.”

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