How to Equitably Distribute the Covid Vaccine

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Source and Background

We'll continue with a tough one: The New York Times published this story People Are Dying. Whom Do We Save First With the Vaccine?: With limited doses available, and a pandemic claiming more lives every day, a complex moral calculus has begun. Five thinkers weigh the choices ahead.

  • (Some of you may not be able to get past a pay wall; for those of you who can't get over the wall, here's this pdf of the article. If you can afford to, however, support The New York Times, which produces a lot of informative articles like this one!)

Read this article, and then answer the following questions.

Questions:

  1. I highlighted "a complex moral calculus" in the subtitle (it's a course that should follow Calc III, or be covered in complex analysis...:). The authors mean a "calculation"; in particular a "moral calculation" -- which makes calculations so much tougher. In particular, there is a strong focus on social justice. What examples of mathematical calculations do you find in this article (specific or implied)?
  2. What math might you lend to the discussion? Are there some better calculations that we need to consider?
  3. I know that it's a very hard problem: but it's the problem we face. We are "solving" this even as we study this. In KY, Gov. Beshear published this comment in his message of the day: "...our challenge is supply, supply, supply. Remember, we will get a vaccine to everybody, it’s just going to take some time.” Given that we are constrained by supply, decide which is a better way to vaccinate all the staff in a school distract: do we prioritize and vaccinate older folks all across a school district, working our way down by age; or do we vaccinate all staff on a school-by-school basis to create "safe schools"?
  4. Examples like this illustrate the process of "optimization" -- frequently in mathematics we are seeking to maximize, minimize, etc. It's a very important part of business, engineering, and most other facets of life (a lot of families are struggling right now to figure out how to make the most of these unemployment checks....) Identify one other personal example of optimization in the age of Covid, and how mathematics might be used to try to solve it.

Your Answers:

Question 1:

I highlighted "a complex moral calculus" in the subtitle (it's a course that should follow Calc III, or be covered in complex analysis...:). The authors mean a "calculation"; in particular a "moral calculation" -- which makes calculations so much tougher. In particular, there is a strong focus on social justice. What examples of mathematical calculations do you find in this article (specific or implied)?


Various quotes are used from the article to highlight the use of mathematics. One part that was frequently quoted by students is Singer on the topic of reducing, "years of life lost." He mentions how a 90-year-old would have about 5 years left while a 75-year-old could have 15-20 years left so in that situation we should vaccinate the 75-year-old first.

The second quote that showed up frequently was prioritizing children because they are the future and their education is important for society.

Overall, it's hard to choose which life is the most important or which factor should be considered for vaccination because there are arguments on age, role in society, position of work, social vulnerability, etc.

Question 2:

For this problem, many students agreed with Blake Weimer's post about the distribution of COVID vaccines being "a giant, complex optimization problem". John Nuestro noted that there are so many variables playing a part that it would be impossible to go by just one equation.

We mentioned various factors relating to vaccine distribution, many of which were mentioned in the article. These included things like age, job position (particularly frontline workers and essential workers), race, and more. Many of these factors were even questioned. For instance, who is considered to be an essential worker exactly? Does this include teachers? Is one variable given a greater value?

This issue reminded some students of their experience with linear algebra, and they thought it could apply to the topic. Shawn Huesman also linked an article that "details an optimization technique for population control -before- the deployment of Covid vaccines" and "mentions a 'SEAIR' model to represent a population by symptomatic, asymptomatic, and recovered individuals along with their severity".

Chelsea Debord also pointed out the issue of incorrect data or data that is delayed even at the level of individual counties, which may cause issue in determining who is currently most directly affected.

Austin Paolucci also mentioned "the SIR model for epidemics and how the Susceptible, Infectious, and Removed people relate to one another mathematically, since vaccinating is essentially one way to create a bigger 'removed group'".

Question 3:

There was not a super clear consensus reached by our class to correctly address this issue. Some people claimed we should vaccinate the oldest staff members first, while Craig McGhee suggested staring with Kindergarten teachers, and working your way up by grade level would be beneficial for the children. The divide came from whether we believe that vaccinating a school is for the benefit of the staff, or its children. Chelsea Debord also brought this up when she stated that many of her friends have seen the “negative effect virtual learning had on their children.” This fact was countered by Blake Weimer, who claimed “I didn't really consider to think of the negative effect virtual learning has on children. I definitely agree that all teachers (and hopefully students!) get vaccinated so that virtual learning no longer becomes the "norm". However, I do think it is important to note that sacrificing to learn virtually is worth it if the sacrifice means not as many people die from covid.”

While John Nuestro started the conversation off by saying it was a hard problem, in the end it was not the logic of how to distribute the vaccine, but the ethical consequences of the different distribution methods that cause conversation, and disagreement.

Question 4:

There seemed to be two major themes that most people talked about, money and sociability. In regards to money, some people talked about how many business were forced to optimize in order to survive the pandemic. People also listed many personal examples of how covid either forced people to start saving more in order to over come the financial hardships or how the virus gave others the ability to rethink their finances by selling extra cars or by moving out of expensive housing because online classes and jobs allowed for people to still work while farther away.

The other major theme talked about was how to remain social in a way that still feels real while trying to come into contact with as little people as possible. In order to maintain mental health its important to socialize however that has been very difficult to do in this time. As Blake said one of the ways to optimize this would be to try to minimize the amount of people you come in contact with overall by staying in one group. This would allow people to still be at least slightly social while maintaining some level of safety.

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