healthHealth and Medicine

Online Calculator Shows How Many Lives Your Social-Distancing May Save


Madison Dapcevich


Madison Dapcevich

Freelance Writer and Fact-Checker

Madison is a freelance science reporter and full-time fact-checker based in the wild Rocky Mountains of western Montana.

Freelance Writer and Fact-Checker

The creators say that the calculator is designed to improve public awareness about the importance of staying at home and isolating during a pandemic. eamesBot/Shutterstock

One-third of the world’s global population is believed to be under lockdown currently as health advisors recommend social distancing and self-isolation as the best measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

If you’re curious about how much your personal decisions are impacting the curve, a new calculator developed by mathematicians can help answer some of those questions. The coronavirus social distancing calculator, which is based on the results of recent research on the feasibility of controlling the COVID-19 outbreak, shows how many lives one person might save by isolating themselves in a given outbreak scenario.  


“Recently, I read many 'flatten the curve' stories, but how can we make an impact as individuals? This is why I built a tool to show people the mathematical power of self-isolation,” Anna Szczepanek, a PhD in Mathematics from the Jagiellonian University, Poland, who worked with physicist Dominik Czernia to develop the calculator, told IFLScience. 

Flattening the curve is a term used for gradually introducing measures used to prevent infection rates during a virus outbreak.  ArtistWright/Shutterstock

To make the calculator, the team used data from previous simulations by other teams to model the outcome of 1,000 outbreak scenarios using seven parameters.  

"The idea is to simulate lots of outbreaks and check how changes in parameters change the average course of the pandemic. In general, this model works for any contagious disease, yet the initial parameters were chosen specifically for COVID-19," said Szczepanek, who recommends using the following data points to replicate conditions surrounding the current pandemic:

  • Begin with the initial cases, or the number of initial cases in the newly detected hypothetical outbreak. (For COVID-19, this was about 20 people in Wuhan, China.)

  • Set the reproduction number, or the number of people directly infected by one person. In the case of COVID-19, this rate is believed to be between 1.4 and 3.8.

  • The probability that a person is asymptomatic, meaning that they are not showing symptoms but can still spread the virus. It is thought to be around 10 percent in COVID-19.

  • Then you will need to calculate the percentage of people that can spread the virus even if they don’t have symptoms. It is thought that probably more than one-in-ten patients will be infected by a person who does not have symptoms. This number is hard to determine as researchers do not yet know the rates of infection globally. 

  • Next, you will need to consider the “delay isolation process,” or the amount of time before a person becomes infected and decides to isolate. The average incubation period for COVID-19 is about five days, so Szczepanek suggests setting the parameters between five and 11 days.

  • Lastly, consider how far you are willing to go when it comes to isolating yourself. You can decide on a value between 0 and 100 percent, the latter being you are in almost total isolation. For example, a person who commits to 100 percent self-isolation can save 399 people from infection and 14 lives in just one month.

Four graphs show you how many people you could protect from infection and death, as well as the percentage of cases considered “controlled” based on your decisions. The creators say that the calculator is designed to improve public awareness about the importance of staying home and isolating during a pandemic. The researchers add that people need to pay attention to the impacts of their self-isolating decisions to avoid increasing the risk of overwhelming hospitals.

"Nothing is more efficient than self-isolation at home. In that way, we avoid spreading a virus for certain. Remember that some cases are asymptomatic and even you can be the unaware carrier now! Don’t contribute to people's deaths – stay at home," said Szczepanek. 

"Making better decisions is what we need the most, now more than ever." 





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