WSU part of CDC initiative to respond to disease outbreaks

Closeup of disease molecules.
The pandemic spotlighted how a rapid and effective response to infectious disease outbreaks is critical for saving lives and protecting communities.

Researchers at Washington State University will play a critical role in an initiative to improve disease detection, forecasting, and response throughout the Intermountain West funded by a recently-announced $17.5 million, five-year grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The initiative, led by the University of Utah in partnership with WSU, will establish a new center named ForeSITE (Forecasting and Surveillance of Infectious Threats and Epidemics) to provide essential data and tools to assist decision-makers in responding to emerging public health threats. The center is one of 13 funded by the CDC to establish a nationwide outbreak response network to detect, respond to, and mitigate public health emergencies more effectively. 

Closeup of Eric Lofgren.
Eric Lofgren

“The COVID-19 pandemic struck Eastern Washington and the Intermountain West in a very different way than it did much of the rest of the country — our pandemic came later but hit very hard when it did arrive,” said Eric Lofgren, a co-lead for the project and an associate professor in WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “That revealed a need for new tools for understanding the dynamics of epidemics in rural communities in the West and making sure state and local public health agencies, health systems and hospitals, and other stakeholders had access to up-to-date and accurate information, situation reports, and forecasts tailored to their unique needs and context.”

The pandemic spotlighted how a rapid and effective response to infectious disease outbreaks is critical for saving lives and protecting communities. Disease forecasting and near real-time “nowcasting” proved to be important tools that guided the public health response and helped to prepare hospitals for patient surges and assist health departments in planning vaccine distribution. 

ForeSITE will act in a similar way to protect communities from novel infectious diseases and existing threats like antibiotic-resistant bacteria to seasonal influenza. The center aims to support decision-makers at every stage of a health threat with data-driven analyses, such as scenario modeling and economic impact assessments. 

The COVID-19 pandemic struck Eastern Washington and the Intermountain West in a very different way than it did much of the rest of the country — our pandemic came later but hit very hard when it did arrive.

Eric Lofgren, project co-lead and associate professor
WSU College of Veterinary Medicine

Using these tools, local health officials can customize responses to meet the needs of their communities. People who live in crowded cities, for instance, may benefit from different health measures to control disease transmission than individuals who live in less populated rural areas. ForeSITE models also factor in equity considerations by incorporating data on socioeconomic status, disability, and race. The pandemic had disproportionate effects on Americans of different socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds, demonstrating a need to mount specialized responses for populations predicted to be the hardest hit.

The ForeSITE effort includes faculty from the University of Idaho and the University of Montana, in addition to state and local public health agencies in Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Utah. Working together, the organizations will be able to coordinate responses more quickly across the Mountain West region. 

At WSU, the center includes faculty from the Paul G. Allen School for Global Health in the College of Veterinary Medicine, the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, the School of Biological Sciences, and WSU Extension.

“We’re looking to leverage our historical strength in infectious disease research and computer science and the relationships we have built through the Extension program to produce state-of-the-art, tailored tools for partners in state and local public health agencies as well as local health systems throughout the Intermountain West,” Lofgren said. “This involves a range of activities, from outreach and partnership planning with communities to developing new methods for forecasting epidemics in rural areas.”

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