A Virginia Tech statistician has co-authored a timely new book that touches on the recent novel coronavirus outbreak known as COVID-19 that has rattled many nations, particularly China.

Ron Fricker, a professor in the Department of Statistics, wrote the 200-page book "Monitoring the Health of Populations by Tracking Disease Outbreaks: Saving Humanity from the Next Plague," with Steve Rigdon, a professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Saint Louis University.

Using historical and contemporary examples, it describes how epidemiologists and biostatisticians track, identify, and monitor disease outbreaks, preventing global pandemics like the 1918 Spanish flu that killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide.

“We were motivated to write the book because the work of public health officials often critically depends on the use of statistical methods to help discern whether an outbreak may be occurring and, if there is sufficient evidence of an outbreak, then to locate and track it,” said Fricker, who also serves as associate dean for faculty affairs and administration in the Virginia Tech College of Science. “With the recent outbreaks of diseases such as swine and bird flu, Ebola, and COVID-19, the role that epidemiologists and biostatisticians play is more important than ever.”

So timely is the book with the COVID-19 outbreak — centered in China, but present in numerous other countries, including the United States  publication was briefly halted for numerical updates of those infected. As this story was being edited on Feb. 24, the number of worldwide confirmed cases stood at 79,000, with deaths topping 2,600. When publication of the book was paused mere weeks ago, the number of infected was only 700, Fricker said.

He added, “Key to combatting and containing the virus is understanding how it affects people, including its morbidity and mortality; how it spreads between people; and tracking those who may be infected so that we can control and hopefully eliminate the outbreak. All of those tasks, and more, depend on the appropriate use of statistical methods.” 

As described in the preface, “This book is the story of the application of statistics for disease detection and tracking. It is the story of how medical and public health professionals use statistics to separate critical disease information from all the noise of our modern world so that they can most effectively intervene and mitigate the effects of the disease.” 

Fricker added that he saw first-hand public-health mobilization in response to COVID-19 during a recent trip to Switzerland. “When I landed in Milan airport, I saw airport workers wearing masks and had to go through a line, along with all the passengers from my plane, and have my temperature taken,” he said.

The book is part of the American Statistical Association and CRC Press’ series on statistical reasoning in science and society. The series’ goal is “to highlight the importance of statistical reasoning in our data-rich world and across many different aspects of everyday life,” Fricker said. In addition to well-known contemporary communicable diseases, such as the Ebola virus, the book also has historical examples such as cholera, and yellow fever.

Prior to joining Virginia Tech in 2015, Fricker was a professor in the Operations Research Department at the Naval Postgraduate School in California. He also has served as associate director of the National Security Research Division and a senior statistician at the RAND Corp. In his 20-year-plus career, Fricker has conducted statistical research on Gulf War illnesses, disease detection and surveillance, and body armor testing.

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