Fighting a Pandemic with Data and Information with Epidemiologist John Brownstein

John Brownstein Shares How to Fight COVID-19 with Data

John Brownstein, an epidemiologist, Harvard professor, and Chief Innovation Officer (CIO) at Boston Children’s Hospital, joined host Bill Russell this Friday to share his specialized experience with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

Challenges of Fighting COVID-19

As an epidemiologist, research has been the most integral part of his job. However, recently however, clarifying and communicating scientific results have become increasingly important.

“Clearly, up until recently, there has been a bit of a void, in sort, of articulating the science and really being as evidence-based as possible, and to get the public engaged in these very challenging times,” Brownstein said.

This is why he has actively featured on ABC in the last year, speaking about the pandemic. To him, the direct impact is instrumental in comparison to published material in journals. 

“I’ve been a big proponent of translating knowledge to broader media,” Brownstein explained.

Vaccine Education Issues

According to Russell, while data fluctuates, between 20 to 40% of the population oppose the vaccine. For Brownstein, proper education is an essential factor in modifying the data.  

“I think we have not focused nearly enough on communication and education,” Brownstein said.

There has been a hyper-focus on developing the vaccine, which has left the actual distribution less of a priority. According to Brownstein, this has resulted in a hesitancy issue

Whether this reluctance stems from an improper understanding of the vaccine or a distrust in government officials and science overall, the discipline of science and communication has not been adequately emphasized, Brownstein concluded.

“I don’t think we’ve put the resources to match operation warp speed in on communication,” Brownstein said.

Detecting the Virus Early

Looking back a year ago, Brownstein concluded that the pandemic exposed significant data gaps in the initial stages, especially. 

In the beginning, the focus is on the early detection of outbreaks. Being a Harvard professor running a lab focused on public health technologies, his team identified something taking place in Wuhan on December 30.

“We sent the first alert of something unusual happening, but clearly, something was brewing for weeks, if not months ahead of that,” Brownstein said. 

The reasoning for the delay, according to Brownstein, was the lack of technologies at both the local and global scales needed to identify the aberration of systems or emergency department visits. This influenced the level of access and ability to track the virus. 

This inability delayed the United States from the beginning, Brownstein explained. As the pandemic unfolded, the lack of a global body focused on calculating the needed data resulted in an international network of volunteers attempting to pull data together for better understanding. 

According to Brownstein, by the time the virus reached the United States, the data was not ready. This left officials without a proper understanding or surveillance system for symptoms. 

“There is a big data gap in what government agencies are providing today in terms of real-time visibility. We’re challenged in this country because of the way that public health has set up. And so it makes sense that it’s hard to keep a national picture in real-time,” Brownstein said.

COVID Near You

The launch of the Google-funded platform, COVID Near You, which reflected a similar version for the flu Brownstein had assisted with developing, allowed some data to be fully uncovered.

The platform, relying on participatory surveillance, was helpful for syndromic surveillancethe understanding of symptoms present in populationssince widespread testing is limited. According to Brownstein, this method of crowdsourcing symptoms has been used for years. 

This has been a tool used by millions of people and has informed professionals with incredibly granular information at the demographic and behavioral levels.

“We’ve always found that it’s about integrating various data streams and pulling them together to give the best sort of insight of what’s happening in the ground,” Brownstein said.

Regarding COVID data, Russell questioned the patterns and overall validity of the model it was utilized to incorrectly predict a massive spread of the virus across the country.

According to Brownstein, the virus’s pattern had been challenging to predict due to the country’s uneven control efforts. With differentiation of mobility patterns, social distancing, and masking procedures in terms of a national strategy, the controls did not stay consistent.

The Future of the Virus

The rise of pandemic fatigue, the lack of participation in all communities, and the risings of public gatherings and weather alike affected case numbers, Brownstein explained..

In a future speculation of the effects of COVID in five years, Brownstein highlighted the need for a better investment in the public health workforce. Being severely underfunded and under-resourced, the public health departments will need to strengthen for future responses to global threats.

According to Brownstein, the disciplines of disease, surveillance, and modeling must have full visibility at the federal level because the likelihood of another pandemic is significant.

The way the world approaches doctors and telehealth has fundamentally changed forever, according to Russell. For Brownstein, the pandemic has permanently altered how Boston Children’s Hospital, his current health system, operates. 

For example, a large portion of visits are done virtually, which has been transformational. According to Brownstein, physicians and patients have loved the change.

“[It] has changed our ability to deliver care in…some ways we expected, but we never thought it’d be this dramatic,” Brownstein said.

To learn more about this episode of This Week in Health IT, watch the full interview at  

Tess Kellogg – Editor-in-Chief
Katie Talpos – Staff Writer

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