…as to why Minnesota’s COVID-19 model was wrong by at least one, and perhaps two, orders of magnitude:
Before Friday, March 20, Marina Kirkeide, who graduated from the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering in 2019, was a School of Public Health part-time research assistant working on HPV transmission for Kulasingam. On a gap year before starting Medical School at the University in fall 2020, Kirkeide also had a second job as a lab tech at St. Paul’s Regions Hospital. That Friday, Kulasingam called her and two other research assistants and asked if anyone was available to “work through the day and night” to get a COVID-19 model to Governor Walz the following Monday. They all jumped at the chance.
The model was literally created over a weekend, in part, at least, by kids.
“I don’t think a lot of researchers get to work on something over the weekend and have public figures talk about it and make decisions based on it three days later,” says Kirkeide, who had to leave her hospital job to focus solely on modeling. She feels the responsibility of such a big project, too. “[In this situation] you don’t have the time to validate as much as you normally would. You want to get it right the first time.”
They didn’t. Minnesota is now using the third iteration of the U of M model.
As a modeler, says Kirkeide, you have complete control over what your results look like. The most important thing is to have absolute integrity.
“Yes, numbers may look grim, but they are what we’re getting,” she says. “You can’t argue with what you see.”
You can, however, check your model against reality. These are the “grim numbers” the modelers were projecting:
One projection showed that cases would peak around April 26 in Minnesota if there were no mitigating steps to slow the virus. The death toll in this scenario could reach 74,000. The other scenario showed a time frame with significant and staged mitigations in place that pushed the peak to about June 29 and projected deaths in the 50,000–55,000 range.
In the linked article, the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health boasts that “[w]hen [Governor Tim] Walz issued the stay-at-home order for the state two days later, which he recently extended to May 4, he took these projections heavily into account.” Six weeks later, is is obvious to all that the U of M model was wildly off the mark. As noted above, it has been replaced by later versions that still can’t “predict” the present, let alone the future. But no matter: the policy lives on, long after the basis for the policy is gone.