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Guest Post: Too Drastic Or Too Slow? Maths Can Help Us Predict Malta’s Coronavirus Future

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Dr Vincent Marmarà has a PhD in Mathematical Epidemiology with the title name, ‘Prediction of Infectious Disease outbreaks based on limited information’. He is currently collaborating on Epidemiological research with foreign Universities regarding the Coronavirus.

The COVID-19 situation in Malta is putting a lot of pressure on the Maltese authorities. The greatest question that we are being faced with is, “When is the right time to take drastic decisions?”.

Some decisions have already been taken and some will be taken in the coming hours and days.

The situation in Malta is becoming more serious. At this point in time, the ninth case has now been confirmed. All travelling from Italy was banned some days ago. Italy is currently one of the major global headaches. Yesterday, the Maltese Government instructed the closure of all flights from Germany, France, Spain and Switzerland too. Earlier today, Prime Minister Robert Abela announced the closure of all schools and educational establishments for the coming week.

In such a situation, it’s challenging to predict with a high level of certainty the spread of the disease, as measures are being taken on a daily basis, with parameters continously changing.

The current situation will not be the same in a few hours. If yesterday the spread of the virus was say ‘X’ amount, the spread of the virus today is already different than yesterday since a new measure was introduced, that of closing down the main flights to and from Malta and the closure of educiationl institutions.

If in a couple of hours’ time other decisions are taken, then the spread will change again, and so on and so forth. Most of the larger events have also been cancelled, including the closing down of theatres and festivals amongst others.

In such cases, Mathematical epidemiology becomes more challenging as Mathematical models are dependent on the infection rate.

The infection rate is constantly changing and hence, mathematical models can try to predict the situation in the coming days based on the factors of the current situation. As more decisions are taken, mathematical models need to be constantly updated.

Another important factor in such modelling techniques is the incubation period.

In the case of this virus, the incubation period can vary typically between 2 days and 14 days, with a median of 5.1 days. This period is rather wide, for example, when compared to the normal seasonal influenza which is typically 2 days.

This means the period where a person can spread the virus without actually having COVID-19 related symptoms is an extensive one. This makes this virus more complex… and more extreme measures are being taken (and need to be taken).

So far, the spread in Malta seems to be contained within the same family, and hence to some extent it is being controlled.

However, at the moment when one person begins to spread this virus to non-family members and/or members that are not living within the same household, the situation will vary again encompassing an even more worrying scenario.

This can happen at any time, and from then on, based on data of other countries, the virus will start to spread exponentially. Hence, due to the above logical reasons being provided, including the knowledge about the incubation period of this virus, more decisions will potentially be taken in the coming hours and days.

This means that, from a mathematical perspective, we are left with the above limited information and knowledge about the impact of this virus. But we do know what’s happening in other countries.

The growth is exponential and this is a concern. We need to constantly anticipate the next step andwe need to constantly take decisions to reduce the risk. Based on the limited information that we have about this disease, Italy might be our best reliable source of information about COVID-19.

Italy is of a similar culture to Malta, having similar climate conditions… not to mention the fact that it’s our main neighbour.

Acting fast is the best solution. Today, we report the new cases, but what about tomorrow?

This is the critical question which needs to be answered before tomorrow and the day after. The above information includes some of the most important statistical facts that we know of. Medical professionals and epidemiologists need to weigh all of the above information to act appropriately before the situation becomes untenable.

What are the Maltese thinking?

Here are some exclusive results of a survey that I carried out during this last week.

Respondents were asked, “Are you worried that you acquire the Coronavirus?”

35.1% said absolutely “No”. 17.9% said “Not much”.

23.5% are unsure.

9.1% said “Yes” and 14.1% said “Definitely Yes”.

The older the generation, the more worried the individuals are.

In fact, 21.7% of those aged 66+ are extremely worried about acquiring the Coronavirus, while only 9.3% of the age group 16-25 years are extremely worried.

This survey was carried out amongst a sample of 400 Maltese citizens, which means it carries a confidence level of 95% and confidence interval of +/- 4.9%.

This survey was carried out between the 3rd and 10th of March, the time before the first case of Coronavirus emerged in Malta and at the point when the first cases of COVID-19 were announced. Hence, one needs to consider that the situation is constantly changing… and with it, people’s perceptions.

Lovin Malta is open to external contributions that are well written and thought provoking. If you would like your commentary to be featured as a guest post, please write to hello@lovinmalta.com and add Guest Commentary in the subject line. Contributions are subject to editing and do not necessarily represent Lovin Malta’s views.

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