Try Out Social Distancing Scenarios With This Pandemic Simulator

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Will the virus spread slower if we lift physical distancing rules but only visit our neighbours? How many people need to follow recommendations for them to work? Is “quaranteaming” with a partner household an effective way to stay safe? You can simulate answers to these questions yourself with a little game called COVID Crush.

The game is a “toy model” of disease transmission, so please don’t mistake this for a detailed epidemiological prediction. It just uses a few simple rules to show how one dot might “infect” another, and lets you watch a thousand of those dots interact over the course of a simulated month.

With social distancing, partner households, and 20% of people not staying at home, 72% of my little dot people were infected within a month. (Screenshot: COVID Crush)

One important way this differs from reality: There are no deaths, just people who recover. And a few other ways: The incubation period is taken to be just one to three days, and a dot is infectious for four to seven days. These are shorter than what we know of COVID-19 in real life. It also assumes that the disease spreads relatively evenly and randomly, although we know that some large gatherings can become “super-spreader” events while many cases don’t spread very far at all.

Still, it’s great as food for thought. With the dots moving freely and no social distancing rules imposed, 86% of my little dot people had been infected by the end of the “month.” If I turned on social distancing as soon as one of my dots was sick (allowing for 20% of the dots to not distance, either because they were jerks or because they were essential workers and couldn’t help it), only 4% got infected.

The numbers rely on the exact moment at which you adjust the parameters, so consider what happens if you turn on the social distancing switch early or later in the outbreak. When I waited until I had 10 sick dots, instead of just one, 63% were infected by the end of the month instead of 4%. I found myself thinking back to when different locations started their lockdowns. At the time, it may have felt too early; in retrospect, most places probably started too late. Playing with a screenful of dots may help you reflect on your own experiences, so give it a try.


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