SANTA FE — Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory are using computer models to study how the timing and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines might shape the course of the pandemic — work that may influence policymakers in New Mexico and across the country.
The researchers say wearing masks and taking other steps to limit the spread of the disease will remain critical for months to come, even as the first vaccines reach New Mexico, perhaps next week.
Furthermore, the scientists say, the public’s willingness to get vaccinated will play an important role in how long it takes for life to return to something approaching normal. A high vaccination rate could mean the difference between resuming some normal activities this summer rather than next winter.
“People don’t realize how much power they have in what’s going on,” mathematical epidemiologist Sara Del Valle said in a Journal interview. “It’s up to us as individuals. Our collective behavior has a great impact on how we fight this disease.”
The early takeaways from the research come as Del Valle and other scientists use mathematical models and computer simulations akin to The Sims, a life simulation video game. They can evaluate the effect on disease spread based on how many people get vaccinated, the effectiveness of the vaccine and who gets it first.
The model can handle far more specific work than similar models, allowing researchers to drill down to the county level for every county in the nation, according to Los Alamos. It takes into account demographic information and what industries people work in to provide a clearer picture of how vaccines would affect a community.
First vaccines next week?
The research is especially important as New Mexico prepares to receive its first vaccine shipment.
The federal government has allocated an initial 17,550 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine to New Mexico.
The vaccines could be shipped to New Mexico as early as Tuesday next week, though the timing will depend on when the Food and Drug Administration issues an emergency authorization.
“These initial doses will be provided to frontline health-care workers who are under enormous stress and risk from being on the frontlines of the battle against COVID-19 for nine months and who now face the worst medical surge since the pandemic began,” said Matt Nerzig, spokesman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
New Mexico’s broader health-care workforce is in the tens of thousands, according to an annual report by the New Mexico Health Care Workforce Committee. It includes about 1,580 active primary care physicians, nearly 16,000 registered nurses and clinical nurse specialists, 1,400 certified nurse practitioners, 851 physician assistants and 4,399 emergency medical technicians, among others.
‘We have the power’
Del Valle and Ben McMahon, also a mathematical epidemiologist, have been using predictive modeling throughout the pandemic to help understand the new coronavirus.
“We’re now to the question: How should we think about the vaccine, and how can we best make use of it?” McMahon said.
Del Valle said the analysis suggests the initial arrival of vaccines isn’t the time for people to let their guard down.
For one thing, the vaccines require two doses — spaced a few weeks apart — and then it takes some time before the recipient is fully protected. Initial supplies will also be limited, not enough to cover everyone who wants one.
Consequently, Del Valle said, face masks and social distancing may stay in place for months.
“By the summer of next year,” Del Valle said, “we may be able to see some resumption of normal activities.”
A key factor, she said, is how many people get vaccinated once the injections are available to everyone. The goal would be to get 75% to 85% of the population vaccinated to reach herd immunity and protect people who can’t get vaccinated for health reasons.
The more people who are vaccinated, McMahon said, “the sooner we get back to something resembling normal.”
An infectious disease, Del Valle said, isn’t like a storm that a community must endure, with little power to change the outcome.
Instead, Del Valle said, modeling shows the pandemic is more akin to a fire. People can take action — wearing masks, keeping their distance — to extinguish the flames.
“When it comes to infectious diseases,” Del Valle said, “we have the power.”
McMahon put it this way: “The simple things that everybody does to reduce the spread — all of them add up.”