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ERDC researcher uses lessons learned from historic pandemics to address COVID

Dr. Igor Linkov, U.S Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s Risk and Decision Science Team lead, wears an example of the protective masks being used in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Igor Linkov, U.S Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s Risk and Decision Science Team lead, wears an example of the protective masks being used in the COVID-19 pandemic.

VICKSBURG, Miss. ⸺ COVID-19 proved to be unexpected to many people in the world, but Dr.  Igor Linkov, Risk and Decision Science (RaDS) Team lead at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s Environmental Laboratory, found himself on familiar ground. 

Focusing on risk and resilience analytics, Dr. Linkov and his team began sharing their expertise in April 2020 through a mission assignment to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Region 1 Data Analytics Team.

“Risk quantifies what happens when things go wrong,” Linkov said. “Mathematically, this is formulated as the threat in question, how vulnerable we are to the threat, and what the consequences are if the threat manifests.”

Linkov’s interest in pandemics and their prevention began in 2013 when he was teaching at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice, Italy.

“I learned about epidemics starting with the plague in Venice in the mid-14th century,” Linkov said. “I was fascinated with the massive challenge of decision-making that public health officials of the time had to face concerning epidemic management, given the fragmented knowledge and uncertainty about disease.” 

“I started to think about how people 700 years ago could have used risk assessment to deal with that plague,” Linkov said. “For their time, the Venetians had a completely new and different way of thinking, such as notions of physical quarantine and the isolation of the infected within ‘lazarettos.’ My hypothesis was that this different way of thinking represents resilience, and this is what needs to be done to address major threats like pandemics.”

“I imagined what I would do if I were in Venice at the time. I quickly realized that risk assessment would be deficient, and I started to work on resilience. Ebola epidemics of 2014-2016 gave me a chance to start building resilience-based approaches to managing response to epidemics. I never expected to be in the same situation as the Medieval Venetians were, until we encountered COVID-19!”

Working on the Ebola outbreak, Dr. Linkov realized that epidemics cannot be predicted nor can enough societal resources be allocated for preventing epidemics from happening. This again brought him to the field of resilience where investment in hardening the system to avoid degradation of critical function is harmonized with adding recovery and adaptation capabilities. His work is focused on quantifying these trade-offs and helping to allocate societal investments in infrastructure resilience. 

This resilience lens was put to the test when Linkov and two additional ERDC researchers, Dr. Benjamin Trump and Jeffrey Cegan, were assigned to the FEMA Region 1 Data Analytics Team to provide guidance to FEMA and the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response for Health and Human Services for the six New England states.                                  

In explaining the RaDS Team’s mission, Linkov said,  “At the forefront of this burgeoning field, we provide approaches for structuring and conducting risk and resilience assessments, stakeholder engagement, resource prioritization, planning and other relevant analyses to USACE and the nation. We develop adaptive methods and models for describing relevant risks, along with decision analytical techniques to compare and guide the selection of management alternatives.”

In a quote from a 2014 ERDC News Bulletin article, he said, “Resilience management can be a guide to dealing with the current Ebola outbreak in Africa, and others like it, as well as other issues like population growth and the impacts of global climate change.”

That’s proven true now, as FEMA is leaning heavily on the RaDS Team to analyze data and inform decisions for handling the COVID-19 pandemic.

“RaDS demonstrated the value of data analytics to FEMA operations,” Linkov said.   What was initially intended as a two-week detail for us has resulted in eight-month mission assignment for three ERDC employees.  

“COVID-19 clearly showed what we started to see during Ebola epidemics ⸺ risk management is not sufficient, and resilience should be built into the way our systems function. The pandemic exposed the fragility of our supply chains and health care systems. In the future, resilience analytics should be used as a design consideration, together with risk management and cost assessments.”

“Resilience is an emerging issue that is of crucial importance for USACE,” he continued. “Resilience is a universal concept. Thinking about resilience in areas outside of what USACE does helps to gain a better perspective and see the big picture. It indeed helps us in developing a better product for the Army in the area of infrastructure and military resilience.”