Helen Clough:
An Avalanche of Numbers: the Role of Context in Making Sense of COVID Risks

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In this era of COVID, we are confronted daily by numbers. Be it numbers of cases, numbers of deaths, numbers of tests, the variants are numerous. Numbers are powerful when they are used well, but can be harmful when abused or mis-interpreted, feeding mis-information, hindering policy, and increasing stress and anxiety to individuals. Context to numbers is all. Reporting throughout the pandemic has failed to focus upon questions such as “how many people do we expect to get sick and/or die normally?” And all numbers should reflect uncertainty. Context, with accurate reporting of uncertainty, combined with simultaneous scrutiny of multiple sources, can help us identify, early on, unusual patterns, and to flag up unanticipated effects of a pandemic. In this talk historical data and information from the Office for National Statistics, NHS111 and Public Health England related to deaths and disease are used to demonstrate when, who, and how people in England and Wales become ill and die normally, and to illustrate how unusual patterns can be flagged up from even the earliest stages of a pandemic using routine data. This context is used to assess the burden of COVID-19 and excess deaths according to seasonality, location, underlying comorbidities, age, and other factors.

Helen Clough is a statistician who works in the Department of Livestock and One Health at the University of Liverpool. She studied for a PhD. in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at Lancaster University and since then her focus has been upon the application of statistical methods to applied scientific problems, with focus in the veterinary sciences, infectious diseases and public health. Current research interests include the spatio-temporal modelling of norovirus surveillance data (which involves a PhD. collaboration with the Risk Institute), and how statistical approaches might be used to improve pandemic response with examples from COVID-19, and this latter will be the focus of her presentation.