A group of academics and health experts are launching a dynamic COVID-19 tracking system that will help counties, states and metropolitan areas predict where the virus is headed, when it will arrive and whether spread is accelerating.

“Now we can easily identify outbreaks at their beginning,” said Lori Post, director of the Buehler Center for Health Policy and Economics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “You want to know where the pandemic is accelerating, how fast it is moving and how that compares to prior weeks.”

Post, as co-lead author and investigator, worked with co-lead author James Oehmke of Northwestern University and Charles Moss of the University of Florida for the last fourth months to develop the new system, which is the first to dynamically track the virus. Other systems are static and track infections, deaths and hospitalizations without the ability to predict where the illness is headed.

“We can inform leaders where the outbreak is occurring before it shows up in overcrowded hospitals and morgues,” Post said.

The system was to be rolled out in 195 countries on Thursday. It will track the virus in U.S. states and metropolitan areas, as well as Canadian provinces. The U.S. leads the world by number of COVID-19 cases, at 13.9 million, and deaths, at 274,121, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University. That’s about a fifth of the global case tally of 64.8 million and global death toll of 1.5 million.

Canada has had 395,544 confirmed cases and 12,373 deaths, the data show.

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Northwestern is hosting a dashboard that is open to anyone and will offer new metrics, along with traditional ones. Each country’s dashboard will be monitored in U.S. embassies to help inform policy leaders. The project is being named GASSP, for GlobAl Sars-Co2 Surveillance Project.

“Speed itself doesn’t tell us enough,” Post said. “We have to know the acceleration and how that compares week to week — jerk — to be prepared for what’s coming in the pandemic.”

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Jerk — a physics term that measures increasing acceleration that may help predict the stress the pandemic will place on health-care systems — is one of the new metrics.

“Jerk can help turn a reactive policy response into a proactive policy response,” said Oehmke, adjunct professor of emergency medicine at Northwestern.

Then there’s persistence — an echo effect forward used in financial markets — that measures the likelihood that people who presented last week as positive will infect others who will present as positive next week.

“For example, relative to other countries, the Netherlands is a small country and doesn’t have the same case load as some larger countries like Spain,” Post said. “But they have alarming signs right now — increased speed, acceleration and positive jerk, and that means potential for explosive growth.”

The system has already found that Hawaii, Vermont and Maine have the smallest rates of new daily infections measured per 100,000 residents, but with speed accelerating and persistence positive, they need to follow safety measures to prevent the virus’s escalating again. That means frequent hand washing, social distancing and wearing face masks.

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It found that Wisconsin is likely to see its outbreak continue to explode. Wisconsin and California have similar daily case numbers, and California has nearly seven times the population of Wisconsin.

“Wisconsin is disproportionately affected by the pandemic, and yet it was California that declared an emergency stay-at-home order,” the authors wrote.

It found that Wyoming has several indicators over the past three weeks suggesting its outbreak is going to get much worse.

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