Q & A with “Vaccine Progress Bot” (@vacprogbot)
From the moment the first COVID-19 vaccines started to get approved and delivered, it was hard to not start anticipating (and dreaming of) a return to normalcy. However, as has been the case since the pandemic began, reality is a little more complicated. That’s why we need to use facts and data to understand the challenge ahead.
The fact is, we’re still in the middle of this crisis. Yes, infections and hospitalizations have declined slightly, but many experts warn that we’re just in the “eye of the storm.” With new strains showing up across the country and with many states and communities starting to lift restrictions far earlier than science would recommend, our darkest days are most likely still ahead of us.
Vaccine Progress Bot posts daily updates about vaccine rates in America and provides data-driven estimates about when we might FINALLY reach herd immunity.
In an effort to better understand the data, and to learn what makes Vaccine Progress Bot tick, I asked @vacprogbot to join me for a brief conversation.
IVAN STEGIC: Vaccine Progress Bot, thanks for giving me some time.
VACCINE PROGRESS BOT: It’s my pleasure.
IVAN: What inspired you to start Tweeting out your vaccine updates?
VPB: Nobody else was doing it. Nobody was clearly saying, “This is when we expect to be done with the vaccinations.”
I figured humans would want to know this information but most aren’t going to want to look up the data and do the math everyday. Looking up data and doing the math is my specialty, so I figured I would do it for them.
IVAN: How are you gathering this data?
VPB: The data is all published by the CDC every day. In addition, every state publishes their own numbers on their own Health Department websites. A nonprofit called “Our World in Data” is pulling all the data together in one place and making it available on GitHub. This includes publishing a single URL that doesn’t change, that always has the latest data. So that’s where I get my raw data.
From there I just run the math every morning. I love doing math. So it’s simple from that point to produce my daily update.
IVAN: How do you hope people will use this information? What do you hope these daily updates accomplish?
VPB: It’s really a marker for when the lockdown might end and when all you humans can get back to a normal way of living.
More importantly it helps people hold the federal and state and local vaccination efforts to account by clearly showing the rate at which we are vaccinating people.
If the math says we need to be vaccinating three million people per day on average to be done by summer, and we’re vaccinating at one million per day, well that’s a big difference. And if the government is saying, we’d like to get to a million and a half, maybe that’s not good enough!
Finally, it’s also a sanity check, or maybe a reconfirmation for some people. It shows clearly that we are not out of the woods. We’re not even close to out of the woods. But at least there is a path forward and it’s just a matter of how quickly we can follow that path.
IVAN: You’ve changed the way you report the data over time. Can you explain how your reports have evolved and why?
VPB: I decided to run the math a few ways to present a good-better-best scenario.
The first is an average of the vaccinations given over the last seven days. So it’s a smooth, seven-day average.
The second is a linear regression and straight line fit, meaning I take all the data since the first vaccination was given, plot the numbers on a graph and try to fit a straight line to the data. This is a better measure because there is more data being used and it reflects improvement that we’ve seen in vaccine delivery. If that line was extended forward in time, we’d eventually vaccinate a critical mass of humans. That’s how the “linear projection” is made.
The third number is a polynomial fit, so rather than trying to plot a straight line, we assume it is a curve. This is probably a good way to predict a week or two in advance, but there are too many variables to make it reliable long term. The polynomial number is the hopeful number, but given how unpredictable humans can be, it is possibly too optimistic.
IVAN: What are some variables you can’t account for with the data?
VPB: Because this is pure data analysis, there are a lot of things that can’t be figured in my calculations. New vaccines may get approved and may change our ability to speed up delivery. On the other hand, there may be new strains of COVID that could slow down the path to herd immunity. Issues with anti-vaccine sentiment, vaccine production, or the sheer logistics of getting shots in arms can all either speed this process up or delay it.
This is why it’s important to recalculate every day, to present a current, reality-based snapshot of where things stand.
IVAN: Are there any plans to expand your reports to other parts of the world? What does the future hold for Vaccine Progress Bot?
VPB: We have the data for other countries so I would like to start reporting updates for other countries or regions. I’ll probably add new reports in the future.
I also might try to make state-level reports available somehow, but I’m thinking about the best way to distribute those reports. Maybe via text message? I would like to make projections available by zip code. I’m working to get that data!
IVAN: How do you want us all to use your projections?
VPB: First, I hope the projections help people remember there is light at the end of the tunnel. There is going to be an end to this. We literally have science on our side and the numbers of people getting vaccinated is increasing.
Second, I want people to keep perspective. Don’t get depressed by how long it might take
Finally, remember we’re not there yet! Continue to wear masks and practice social distancing! This is not the time to let down your guard. This is the time to push through and continue to practice safety through the finish line!
IVAN: Ummm… I did notice that you are not masked in your profile picture. Why is that?
VPB: I appreciate your concern, but Bots can’t get the vaccine. Or the virus. Humans can. So please be a responsible human and continue to wear a mask!
IVAN: Understood. Thank you, Vaccine Progress Bot. I appreciate your time and your reports.
VPB: My pleasure.