FARGO — At 5 p.m. a group of up to 15 people scattered among the east and west coasts with a cluster in Bismarck would regularly meet via online conference to try to predict North Dakota’s future.
More specifically, the far-flung gathering tries to predict the future course of the contagious coronavirus as it sweeps through North Dakota. What is the projected rate of new cases? How many hospital beds will be needed? How many deaths will result?
As North Dakota officials watch on their computer screens, a team from Ventana Systems, a consulting firm that specializes in sophisticated dynamic computer modeling, walks them through each updated forecast.
The model’s assumptions and predictions have been closely guarded, not disclosed to the public in any detail — a degree of secrecy that has drawn criticism from Shelley Lenz, Gov. Doug Burgum’s Democratic challenger.
Tammy Miller, Burgum’s chief operating officer, who is involved in directing the state’s coronavirus response, will say little about the state model’s forecast except that it indicates that North Dakota has yet to reach the apex of infections from the contagious virus.
“We haven’t hit the peak yet,” she said. “We have been reluctant to say what that guess is,” though the range has been “very consistent.”
Uncertainty about the effect of North Dakota allowing “high contact” businesses, such as restaurants, bars, barbershops, styling salons and tattoo shops to reopen on May 1 clouds the predictions, Miller said.
“We don’t know what the impact will be of reopening those businesses,” she said. “We will be watching it very closely.”
The primary purpose of the model is to ensure that North Dakota’s hospitals won’t be overwhelmed by a surge of patients sick with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, she said.
All of the forecasting models North Dakota officials track, including the state’s forecast and those of the state’s major hospitals, agree that the state has ample bed capacity.
“Our models are generally providing very similar results,” Miller said. “Every model tells us that we absolutely have the medical capacity in the state to handle any surge.”
In the early weeks of the pandemic — North Dakota’s first confirmed case came on March 11 — the team of state officials and consultants met almost daily to discuss predictions. The model’s predictions move within a range set by variables, she said, such as the average length of a patient’s hospital stay.
The model’s underlying assumptions are adjusted daily, Miller said, providing a dynamic view of how the coronavirus pandemic will behave.
State officials also track other models to evaluate the state model’s predictions. “It’s really good to look at a variety of models,” she said. The results have been consistently reassuring. “Our models have from day one told us we absolutely have capacity to handle the peak of any surge,” Miller said.
Also, she said, the models are “not predicting an alarming update in deaths,” though she did not specify. As of Friday, May 22, North Dakota had reported 52 deaths involving coronavirus infection, a death rate of 7 people per 100,000 residents, according to Statista.
Two publicly available models of the coronavirus pandemic in North Dakota indicate that the virus’ reproduction rate or infection rate — how rapidly the virus is transmitted from person to person — is low, suggesting a gradual spread.
The infection rate in North Dakota is 1.12 according to the Covid Act Now model, built by a multidisciplinary team of data scientists, epidemiologists and health experts whose partners include centers at Georgetown University and Stanford University.
“Because this number is only slightly above 1.0, it means that CIVID is growing, but slowly,” according to the Covid Act Now model for North Dakota said. North Dakota’s infection rate is expected to remain stable in the short term.
Similarly, a model by MIT data scientist Youyang Gu estimates the reproduction rate in North Dakota as 1.05.
A number less than one means the virus’ spread will gradually cease, as too few new people are becoming infected to continue transmission.
Some models suggest North Dakota already could have seen the peak of new coronavirus infections. The model by Auquan Data Science predicts that coronavirus infections in the state peaked in very late April or early May at almost 1,000 cases.
The coronavirus forecasting model by Los Alamos National Laboratory concluded there is a 65% chance North Dakota has seen the peak. It’s mid-range probability forecast estimates North Dakota will have 4,631 infections and 114 deaths by July 1.
As of Friday, North Dakota reported 2,317 confirmed coronavirus infections, of which 1,405 had recovered from the illness, or 61%. “We have a remarkable number who have recovered,” Miller said.
The model by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimated North Dakota’s current infections range from 61 to 327, a number that will gradually diminish until early August. The model predicts up to 65 COVID-19 deaths in North Dakota.
Ventana’s model for North Dakota is based on a large set of variables, including seasonal effects, behavioral risk reductions, transmission rate, the rate at which those infected show symptoms, potential quarantine effectiveness, capacity of hospitals and the public health system as well as recovery and fatality rates.
The Ventana team that built the model includes data scientists from MIT and Harvard. “These are really some very experienced and talented individuals we have working on our model,” she said.
The first phase of the modeling service, which included building the model, cost the state $201,500, Miller said, and another modeling phase is likely as the state continues to track the virus.
Over time, the model has been refined and is providing better predictions, Miller said. “The more data you have the better the results are going to be. Of course, the model will be completely accurate on the last day,” but not before then.
Lenz, a veterinarian in Dickinson, has been critical of what she calls state officials’ lack of transparency about the state model’s assumptions and predictions, and said Burgum has acted contrary to advice from federal disease control officials.
“As a scientist, small business person and rural resident, I believe that it is past time that the governor share with the public how he is making decisions, who he is listening to and what data is being used,” she said in a statement.
Through a lawyer, Lenz submitted an open records request to state officials seeking details, including assumptions and outcomes, of its coronavirus pandemic modeling.
“Her records request will be processed like any other records request from any other constituent,” said Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki. “We’ll have answers to her questions about modeling.”
In order to contain the virus, Miller said, North Dakotans will have to continue to exercise caution, including social distancing practices and wearing masks when they are in close contact in public with others.
“We assume a pretty high compliance with that,” she said of the model’s assumption for social distancing.
Also, she said, “Testing is a key part of our model,” with the state’s testing capacity ramping up to 4,000 tests per day by the end of this month and 6,000 per day in June.