Department of Energy awards $5M to Sandia National Labs

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Department of Health leaders say the combination of flu, RSV and COVID-19 cases is pushing many facilities to their limits.

Representatives from the big three hospitals in Albuquerque say they’re working to increase capacity to manage an influx of patients. 

But what if hospitals could accurately predict how many patients they’ll need space for? Researchers at the Sandia National Laboratory are working to do just that.

Developers say the software already exists and it works, they just need to make it a little easier to use.

The software analyzes the current state of any given outbreak, and predicts how it might change in the next few weeks on a county-wide level.

While those predictions may not always help prevent people from getting sick, researchers say it can give hospitals and other agencies some much-needed time to prepare.

“After this pandemic, and the shock to the system, we’ve suddenly realized that the best way of preventing these pandemics is to detect them early, and squash them,” said Jaideep Ray, Sandia National Labs staff research scientist. 

And the only thing researchers at Sandia National Labs need to do that is a lot of numbers.

“Strangely enough, most of my work is in engineering,” said Ray. 

Ray is one of the scientists who helped develop software capable of predicting how disease outbreaks will progress in the near future — usually two to three weeks. It uses public testing and case data to determine past, present and future spread rates, and how many people could get sick.

“If you’re running a Department of Health, and you know that you’re going to be in a resource crunch, you can at least think of alternatives, rather than, you know, simply being confronted by the facts and having no idea what to do next,” Ray said. 

Ray says the software was first developed after an anthrax outbreak 2003. It was adapted for swine flu, and then COVID-19 – but now they’re looking to the future.

“Let’s say, two years from now we have another pandemic, okay, and it’s a completely new virus, but as long as you’ve got a test for the virus, and you can detect the person with the virus, you can collect the data. Once you have the data that so many people were diagnosed on day one, day two, day three, we are in business,” said Ray. 

The U.S. Department of Energy awarded the research team $5 million to further develop the technology, and incorporate other prediction models from Argonne National Laboratory.

But Ray admits it could be several years before the technology is ready for large-scale use.

“We know the end result, we know the road to the end result. But it’s a long road, and we’ve just started down that road,” Ray said. 

Ray says a lot of their work will be focused on making the software more versatile.

He says it’s not much help if you need a supercomputer to make those predictions.