Summer 2020

On Henry Mall


They wanted a way to help people understand how a disease like COVID-19 can transmit through a population. So Malia Jones and Caitlin Bourbeau of the Applied Population Laboratory (APL) made it into a game.

Jones, a social epidemiologist, and Bourbeau, a web developer, combined their skills to create a simulation called COVID Crush. The game allows players to experiment with various scenarios involving physical distancing (also called social distancing) and watch how they lead to or limit the spread of COVID-19 in a population of 1,000 dots, which represent individual people.

For instance, the game shows what could happen as communities begin to ease restrictions that have largely kept people at home and what happens if we all start visiting our five nearest neighbors. Players can control when physical distancing begins and ends, how many people don’t follow physical distancing guidelines, and the movement patterns of those who don’t stay at home.

“It’s a highly simplistic version of what happens in reality,” says Jones, “but I think it teaches something about how the real world works, even though the real world is considerably more complex.”

Housed in the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology, the APL is a team of skilled forecasters, problem solvers, and data facilitators that uses numbers, graphs, and maps to help the public better understand complex issues, such as COVID-19, and make better decisions for their communities.

In the video above, Jones demonstrates how to play COVID Crush and describes what several scenarios might mean during the COVID-19 pandemic. In one scenario, she walks through the outcome when physical distancing measures are abandoned just as the number of sick people starts to decline.

“This is instructive for those states that are ready to come out of ‘safe at home’ as soon as they’ve crossed the so-called ‘peak’ [of cases],” says Jones. “We can see, when we release social distancing as soon as the case counts go down, they just immediately go back up. It’s actually the highest-risk moment to release social distancing in terms of continuing the spread of the disease.”

When the pandemic hit, Jones and Bourbeau were in the midst of developing a different game to help demonstrate the concept of “herd immunity,” which refers to the protection afforded to a population of people when a majority of them are vaccinated against an infectious disease or are otherwise immune. You can experiment with that game as well.

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