LEWISTON, Idaho – As the state of Idaho prepares to enter Stage 3 of Idaho Gov. Brad Little’s Idaho Rebounds plan on Saturday, Lewis-Clark State College Natural Sciences & Mathematics Division Chair Heather Moon continues to play a key role in the state’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Moon is part of a small group of higher education mathematicians and computer scientists who used data to design mathematical models to help Gov. Little’s Coronavirus Working Group with Idaho’s recovery plan.
In March, after states began to follow guidelines for dealing with COVID-19 concerning staying at home and social distancing, Gov. Little organized his working group to help bring Idaho’s economy back in stages without sparking an upsurge in COVID-19 reports.
An issue, however, rose in trying to find data to create a model. Because some states were hit harder than others, a federal model was slow to develop and became evident that it would be up to each state on how to handle the recovery.
Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen contacted the Idaho State Board of Education and asked for faculty help from Idaho’s four public higher education institutions and Washington State University.
Moon, along with her husband, WSU associate math professor Tom Asaki, were part of the higher ed group tasked with creating models based on the available data. Moon said she was asked to join on March 18 and the group met via teleconferencing a day later.
Moon said her cohorts decided to break into groups that would use different modeling techniques in attempt to predict, based on various mitigation strategies, results in Idaho such as how many hospital beds and ventilators might be needed, will there be enough hospital staff/medical workers, and what can be done to slow the spread of the virus until a vaccine becomes available.
“The goal for my group was to show what would happen with various levels of social distancing,” Moon said. “With the models created, we showed what would likely happen if a certain strategy was followed across the state.”
It was a challenge for the group because the data was changing daily. Moon said she and her husband worked from 4 a.m. to midnight the first several days creating a model. She said at the time, the cruise ship Princess Diamond had been quarantined for a month with more than 700 who had become infected and 14 had died. It was, at the time, the best example of the progression of the virus in a closed environment.
The group continues to follow the data and work on models, but everything points to social distancing having a positive effect on slowing the spread of the virus. The group turned over their findings to Jeppsen, who passed it along to the Coronavirus Working Group.
“Once again, our universities stepped up to respond to important research needs in our state,” Gov. Little said in a press release. “I appreciate our colleges and universities for helping my Coronavirus Working Group make data-driven policy decisions and identify effective mitigation strategies to reduce the impact of COVID-19 on Idahoans.”
The model is built on a complex series of mathematical calculations that takes into account mitigation measures and the timing of those measures such as the Governor’s April stay at home order. The model is nimble and able to be updated as more information becomes available.
“The model gave us the evidence we needed to plan for the reopening of Idaho because it showed that the mitigation strategies that reduce contact rates between people – avoiding nonessential travel, physical distancing – were flattening the curve and slowing the spread of COVID-19,” DHW Director Jeppesen said.
Moon said it was an interesting project to work on and encourages practicing social distancing, wearing clean masks, washing hands frequently and other safety precautions.
“It’s important to know that without appropriate procedures, the medical system could become overwhelmed. We did see a big difference on how well the medical field can handle the virus when appropriate procedures are followed,” she said. “The math says so.”
Moon is an associate professor of math and has worked at LC State since 2016. She has served as division chair for the past year.
Moon received her bachelor’s degree in mathematics with a physics minor from Eastern Oregon University in 1998 and earned her master’s in mathematics from Kansas State in 2000. She then spent a year teaching high school in Helix, Ore., and a semester at the University of Miami. She also worked at Walla Walla Community College as the director of instructional support and as an adjunct math instructor. She earned her Ph.D. in Mathematics at Washington State University in 2013.
Before arriving at LC State, she worked three years at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.