Written by Vitor Mori, Ph.D., post-doctoral fellow in the Vermont Lung Center and UVM Cancer Center
As a University of Vermont post-doctoral fellow, I have been able to help my home country of Brazil during the COVID-19 pandemic by applying some of the modeling expertise I’ve gained to help the city of Sao Paulo track the spread of the disease during the first months of the pandemic. I received my master’s degree in biomedical engineering in 2015 and my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering in 2019 from the University of Sao Paulo. In 2017, I came to Vermont, where I spent a year as a Ph.D. exchange student in the lab of Dr. Jason Bates, a renowned researcher in the field of bioengineering. Following my Ph.D. defense, Dr. Bates invited me to join his lab as a post-doc, where I’ve been since October 2019. My main research interest is mathematical models of biological systems. My project is modeling cisplatin pharmacodynamics following intratumoral injections in lung tumors to maximize therapeutical effects. I’ve just received the Damon Runyon Quantitative Biology Fellowship to further this work.
I got involved in epidemiological models of COVID-19 in mid-March. Dr. Bates was already deeply involved and working very hard on the Vermontilator, a simple, inexpensive ventilator he developed with a UVM team that promises to ease pressure on the supply of what can be costly equipment. I immediately got very interested and started working with Professor Bates and Professor John Hanley on an SEIR (susceptible, exposed, infected, removed) model. Soon after I started working with those models, I talked with my wife, who worked in the building permits department of Sao Paulo City. When the pandemic hit, her whole team was reallocated to the funeral department. The number of deaths in Sao Paulo was increasing quickly, and they were concerned about a collapse in the funeral system. She told me that the funeral department struggled to find someone to help with short and mid-term predictions of deaths per day. They urgently needed this information to hire buriers, secure refrigerated chambers rentals, and coordinate the logistics of burials and corpse removal from houses and hospitals. Sao Paulo City Mayor Bruno Covas was especially concerned with what happened in Guayaquil, Ecuador, where the funeral system’s collapse led to terrible scenes of bodies around the streets.
I started making bi-weekly reports for the Sao Paulo City government with short-term forecasts of the number of deaths per day due to COVID-19 under different scenarios and non-pharmaceutical interventions. Fortunately, the Sao Paulo City government acted quickly, and they didn’t experience a collapse in the burial system. After a few weeks working with the City Government of Sao Paulo, I got in touch with a group of bright Brazilian researchers at the COVID-19 Observatory – Brazil. They were also modeling several features of COVID-19 spread. We joined forces, working closely with decision-makers to advocate for sound public policies. It’s also important to acknowledge the challenges of practicing social distancing in a country with one of the highest levels of social inequality in the world. Since August, the pandemic has been slowing down in Sao Paulo, and we’ve been working on contact tracing strategies and protocols for safely reopening schools. In tandem, we are also active on social media focusing on scientific communication, risk management at the individual level, and damage reduction strategies.
This experience was gratifying as I feel like I was able to help my country, but mentally, it was very stressful. It’s not easy to see the number of new deaths per day increasing every day, and it’s impossible to look at the predictions of the model as just numbers. A lot of people ended up dying alone in ICU beds, distant from their loved ones, without the opportunity to give a last hug. Regardless of religion, the funeral is an important passage ritual to help accept a loved one’s death and pay a last tribute. It’s heartbreaking to see so many families without the opportunity to have an honorable funeral. Fortunately, the pandemic slowed down in Brazil. However, it’s important to keep vigilant as an uptick in cases can occur rapidly, and we must be prepared to deal with this situation.