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04.08.21

Two Approaches to Predicting the Path of the COVID-19 Pandemic

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In this Economic Commentary, Cleveland Fed researchers compare two types of models — the University of Washington’s IHME (“Murray”) forecast, a curve-fitting model, and the Ohio State University model, a structural model — used by epidemiologists to forecast the spread of the coronavirus through the population. Government officials have cited both types of models, and both can be useful in the right context, though only one can be employed for assessing the effectiveness of alternative policies.

Key findings

  • The curve-fitting approach to modeling virus transmission is useful for estimating the number of new infections and deaths that are likely to occur in the upcoming weeks. It cannot predict the causal effect of policies that are not yet in place.
  • The structural approach to modeling virus transmission is useful for assessing the effectiveness of specific policies at curbing new infections and deaths. It may be able to predict the outcome of particular policies such as mandating the use of facemasks in public places or answer questions such as whether travel restrictions or bar closings are effective ways to curb the spread of the virus.
  • Using a curve-fitting model to compare and assess alternative policies will lead to inappropriate conclusions because it reflects only correlations and not causal relationships.

“While curve-fitting is useful in predicting how many new infections are likely in the near future, a structural model, on the other hand, may be able to predict the outcome of particular policies such as mandating the use of facemasks in public places,” say the researchers.

Read the Economic Commentary.

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