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VDH launches online tournament with prize money to help guide COVID policies

Coronavirus test
Posted at 4:39 PM, May 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-05 10:14:12-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia Department of Health has launched an online tournament asking people to make predictions on the future COVID-19 pandemic and are offering up a reward to people with the most accurate guesses.

Virginia health officials have been using modeling through the pandemic to help guide policy decisions, for example, deciding that field hospitals would not be necessary.

"Whether we increase our vigilance or whether we relax it or, you know, what will happen when if different variants move in," Justin Crow, the director of the Social Epidemiology Division at the Virginia Department of Health, said

But they say what they've been using isn't as good at predicting human behavior and they are attempting to gauge that by launching an online tournament called "Keep Virginia Safe Forecasting Tournament".

Partnering with a forecasting technology platform called Metaculus, the VDH crafted 21 specific questions that they're asking people to go online and make their predictions on.

The questions are ones with end dates and targets so they can be graded, such as how many school systems will be all in-person by September and which month over the next year will have the most cases or deaths.

"We have to have resolvable questions," Crow said. "And the reason it has to be resolvable and resolvable by that means, we can tell if an answer or prediction was correct or not."

The company will then take those predictions and combine them with what really happened to turn the information into forecasts for the health department who can then use it to help plan how they should be responding. One question example is whether variants that partially escape immunity will hit a certain threshold by the end of the summer.

"That's obviously something we're very concerned about," Crow said. "And it lets us know a lot of information, whether we need to gear up our contact tracing to really focus on these variants, where they're occurring and whether we really need to, beyond what we've already done, increase our sequencing and develop strategies, specifically around addressing this potential problem.

Crow says they hope experts in forecasting and COVID-19 will take the survey but says they also want to hear from regular Virginians who have a feel for their community.

"How they're behaving and how they're acting and what they might do," Crow said. And so bringing that experience and that knowledge to the table and to the forecasting platform can be very helpful as well."

There will be two more rounds of the tournament in the fall and winter with more questions. When it closes next year in April, the person with the most accurate predictions will win $1,000.