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Experts who crunch daily Covid-19 figures revealed

By George Kebaso
Thursday, June 10th, 2021 00:00 | 3 mins read
Co-chairs of Center for Epidemiological Modeling and Analysis, Loice Ombajo an infectious disease specialist and Thumbi Mwangi an infectious disease epidemiologist address a press conference at University of Nairobi school of Medicine. Photo/PD/KENNA CLAUDE

Finally, the faces behind the daily Covid-19 updates given by Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe can be unmasked.

These are the men and women who spend long hours scouring through piles of documents to break down the Covid-19 data and inform the country on the recommended containment measures.

Away from the public limelight, Dr Loice Achieng’ Ombajo, an infectious disease expert and Prof Thumbi Mwangi, an epidemiologist, retire to bed long after midnight after digesting the Covid-19 figures to inform governmen­t action.

Backed by Dr Shikoh Gitau, a computer scientist who also leads a group of data analysts, the group assembles raw numbers from Covid-19 sample tests released by each county.

Behind the scenes, acting Health Director General Patrick Amoth works hand-in-hand with the analysts to review the data and accompanying scientific evidence which then informs the daily briefs which are usually released to the public by Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe.

“Our work involves breaking down complex biological systems of the virus as a mutant and people, as human beings, with their different characteristics, and how they get affected by the virus,” Prof Thumbi said during yesterday’s launch of the Centre for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis (Cema) at the University of Nairobi’s College of Health Sciences based at Kenyatta National Hospital.

Scientific analysis 

The unveiling of the centre brought to the fore the complex scientific analysis which informs the Covid-19 numbers that Kagwe releases every day.

“Data drives decisions. At CEMA, we are committed to achieving the precisions of science that enable data-driven decision-making from the accuracy of results obtained to accelerate the attainment of public health,” said Prof Thumbi. 

He said their work revolves around absolute numbers, which usually don’t add up to the national data announcements. These numbers, he noted, do not represent any positivity rate as they are negative.

The team, according to Prof Thumbi, a co-founder of CEMA, focuses mainly on what the projections look like going forward.

“For Covid-19, we receive data on positive cases but also for people who tested negative.

“So what you don’t see normally are the absolute numbers which do not match the data of positivity rates,” he explained.

Sample tests 

The team analyses the data to ascertain patterns out of the positive and negative outcomes of the sample tests in order to extract important parameters.

“The idea is to try and simplify the very complex biological systems. The virus has interesting behaviours in itself, and people also have interesting behaviours in themselves. Subsequently, we try to identify three key drivers, then we take them to simplify what is complex, in order to help us make projections of what’s going to happen,” he said during the event which was attended by Education Cabinet Secretary Prof George Magoha, one of the brains behind the UON’s College of Health Sciences, Dr Amoth and ICT Chief Administrative Secretary Maureen Mbaka.

For instance, were it not for their projections in late March last year that the country would witness a surge in Covid-19 positive cases in the first week of April, Kenyans would not have taken the public health protocols seriously.

“We projected 1,000 positive cases from data we analysed and this made Kenyans take the health protocols seriously,” he added.

Movement restrictions

The scientists, however, assured Kenyans that the Covid-19 positive numbers they are currently witnessing on a daily basis do not portend an imminent lockdown, or expected easing of movement restrictions, but more of the true situation on the ground.

“Staying ahead of the Covid-19 pandemic means having real-time data to make decisions,” said Dr Ombajo, also a CEMA co-founder, and senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi and head of Infectious Disease Unit at Kenyatta National Hospital.

Dr Ombajo said CEMA will serve as a catalogue where data collected from various areas will be used to understand diseases and their impact.

“We are always on call, even up to very late into the night, to clarify and put to order data we receive from the counties,” said Ombajo.

On her part, Dr Gitau, the chief executive of Qhala, a digital innovation lab, said the launch of CEMA marks the beginning of a promising symbiotic relationship towards democratising data in Kenya.

George Kebaso

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