August 9, 2021 in Inside Story

Live free or die: Back to abnormal

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Not so long ago, the United States seemed close to getting back to “normal” after a long, exhausting battle against the pandemic. New COVID-19 cases and deaths were way down compared to January’s peak. And then a series of events triggered yet another wave of the pandemic. What happened?

Cooped up for more than a year, people were aching to get out of the house and reclaim their normal lives, and what better way to do that than celebrate the Fourth of July. Huge crowds descended on beaches. Families and friends gathered together. Restaurants and bars reopened. Masks came off, shots of vaccines dwindled, social distancing seemed quaint. Happy days were here again. People partied like it was 1999, but it’s 2021, and that’s the problem.

About the same time, the delta variant – a far more efficient and dangerous version of the original – flexed its power in the U.S. and started ravaging the unvaccinated. COVID-19 cases exploded across the country, most notably in Texas and Florida. Hospital beds filled up with patients – almost all of them unvaccinated and many of them young adults. After gaining so much hard-earned ground in the war via vaccines, shutdowns and mask-wearing, we’re now giving some of that precious ground back. Exactly how much ground will be lost in this latest wave remains to be seen as we head into the fall, kids return to school and adults return to offices and other workplaces.

Sadly, politics continues to trump public health policy in many quarters. We have vaccines that have shown to be very successful and effective against the virus and some variants (so far), yet about 30% of the U.S. population have so far decided not to take the shot despite widespread, easy access. Live free or die happened.

An already divided country now has yet another reason to choose sides, and the vaccinated vs. unvaccinated division could be the deadliest war we’ve waged since the uncivil one of 1861-1865. Recent public health data shows it’s pretty clear which side will suffer the most near-term casualties, but no one will ultimately win the war. Worst of all, it was predictable and to a great extent, avoidable.

Meanwhile, as the U.S. and other wealthy countries experience internal vaccinated vs. unvaccinated conflicts, the poorest nations around the rest of the world are desperate to get the shot. Rajib Ghosh, founder and CEO of Health Roads, LLC, discusses the cruel irony in his Healthcare Analytics column in this issue. In those poor places, writes Ghosh, the division is “sheer inequity – a lack of adequate availability and infrastructure to get people vaccinated.”

Along with the grim news of emerging new variants of the virus – lambda in South America, kappa in India, delta everywhere – Ghosh offers some good news: the development of an artificial intelligence tool called AlphaFold, a highly advanced and sophisticated neural network, to produce a “totally transformative” database of more than 350,000 structures from Homo sapiens and 20 model organisms. “This is a very significant development because it has the potential to revolutionize the field of life sciences,” Ghosh adds.

Since the pandemic began, Analytics magazine and OR/MS Today (the membership magazine of INFORMS – the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences) have been chronicling many of the accomplishments the analytics and operations research communities have made in combating and mitigating the pandemic. The collective work and research is impressive. Given the current unsteady state of the situation, we expect it will continue well into the future.

A Good Walk Spoiled

On a lighter note, this issue of Analytics also includes a feature article by Lucius Riccio on his favorite topic: golf. Riccio teaches analytics at Columbia University and is executive vice president of Gedeon GRC, a New York-based full-service engineering firm, but don’t get him started on the analytics of golf. For more than 40 years, he has been active in the administration and improvement of the game, using the statistical and analytical skills he learned while earning an engineering Ph.D. from Lehigh University. Riccio is currently an advisor for Golf Digest magazine and a regular statistical contributor to that magazine.

In 2018, Riccio contributed an article to OR/MS Today titled “Shooting your age in golf.” (Hint: It’s a very rare feat and only senior players need attempt it.) Three years later, it remains one of the magazine’s most downloaded articles, which leads me to believe (I have no data) that a lot of operations research and analytics professionals play golf … and probably have a lot of time to sneak out on Wednesday afternoons for a quick round.

Riccio is back with another golf analytics article, this time for Analytics magazine, titled “Want to improve your golf game? Work on GIR.” It revolves around a powerful predictor of score he modestly calls Riccio’s Rule, which makes the old golf adage “drive for show, putt for dough” wrong on both counts.

Speaking of old golf adages, Mark Twain is alleged to have said, “Golf is a good walk spoiled.” However, the website maintains the joke first appeared in a 1903 book written by lawn tennis enthusiasts. One of the authors, H.S. Scrivener, wrote that he heard one of his friends snicker, “to play golf is to spoil an otherwise enjoyable walk.”

Golfers and non-golfers alike agree on the sentiment, but for very different reasons. Maybe there’s a lesson in there for our politicians as they grapple with the pandemic and countless other issues.

Peter Horner
([email protected])

Peter Horner is the editor of Analytics magazine.

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