DocWire News recently spoke with Dr. Shaun Grannis, Vice President, Data and Analytics, Regenstrief Institute, to discuss the importance of medical informatics amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and how data and analytics are being used to track the virus. See what he had to say.

DocWire News: Can you tell us what the Regenstrief Institute does, particularly as it relates to COVID-19?

Dr. Shaun Grannis: Sure. Absolutely. So, the Regenstrief Institute was founded about over 50 years ago now by a process engineer who had a suboptimal experience with the healthcare system. And he said, “If I ran my company like hospitals run their systems, I’d be bankrupt.” So, he committed to bringing process engineering and technology to medicine. So, the Institute has been doing a lot of work in the field of medical informatics and health services research to improve healthcare and healthcare delivery.

That informatics component has led us to build electronic health record systems, health information exchange technology, a variety of artifacts for the health IT space. When it comes to the COVID crisis, we were able to help support our state’s response to COVID in that we had built an infrastructure for the state to identify notifiable diseases, and deliver COVID related data to the state very quickly. And so, we are a medical informatics and health services research think tank, providing insight, guidance, conducting research and innovation. And have been doing so for over 50 years now.

DocWire News: Looking at the data in the US, where do you believe we are currently in the pandemic? Are we on the right track, or are there still some pitfalls ahead?

Dr. Shaun Grannis: Well, we’re monitoring the data very closely. And, certainly, we’ve seen since late 2020, we’ve seen a general gradual decrease in the number of new cases, which I think is excellent. We also, for the state of Indiana, we’re tracking hospitalizations, emergency department visits, the use of the ICU and even deaths. And all of those numbers are heading in the right direction. So, nationally numbers appear to be heading in the right direction, and in the State of Indiana where we monitor closely, we see things heading in the right direction.

Now, that doesn’t mean we should rest on our laurels. I think we need to continue to be vigilant. I think we need to continue to monitor what’s happening because the COVID virus has surprised us at quite a few junctures throughout the pandemic. So, we’re heading in the right direction. And I think that’s very encouraging.

DocWire News: How important have analytics and the flow of information been amid the pandemic?

Dr. Shaun Grannis: Well, I think data has been the lifeblood of decision-making for the pandemic. I know that we at the Regenstrief Institute and Indiana University have worked very closely with our state leaders to make sure that they had the best data possible to make informed decisions about when to close down, when to open up. And when you have comprehensive data, you’re really able to make more fine grain decisions. So, for example, in the State of Indiana, we made some reopening decisions based on county level data. So, we’re actually able to go down to more granular levels. But I think it also helps us inform the general population in terms of their own personal decision-making. I think whether at the state level, the local level or at the individual level, having the best information possible to make the best decisions for populations, for individuals is very important. And so data, I think, is the key to that process.

DocWire News: At our current pace, how long do you foresee it taking before enough Americans are vaccinated against COVID that we can return to normalcy?

Dr. Shaun Grannis: So, what I see is a very impressive rollout of the vaccine and the delivery to vaccination centers. Again, we’re tracking very closely here in Indiana. We know that we are moving the inventory of vaccines out into the vaccine centers well. So, in terms of when we think we might be able to go back to normal, first of all, I would start by saying, I don’t think normal means returning back to the way things were before. I think that it’s very likely that in addition to getting that annual flu shot, we likely will be getting an annual COVID vaccine as well. I also think we need to still learn what the pattern of infectivity will be with COVID. It will likely fall into the same pattern as flu, where it picks up in the fall and peaks in the early part of the year, but we still have to learn that. So, I think even though we’re seeing light at the end of the tunnel, I think a lot of light at the end of the tunnel, we still need to gather some additional data to understand what that new normal is going to look like.

There’s still some open discussion about what percent of the population needs to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity. Is it 60%, 70%, 80%? We certainly  want to get the vaccine out to as many people as possible. And the other thing to consider here as well is that the vaccine has been approved for people 16 years of age and older. And they’re beginning to do the pediatric trials at this point. The younger age group is an important constituency to develop immunity in it because they can be carriers and they can be vectors of the disease spread. And so, I’ve heard some projections that the junior and senior high school students, the trials may be completed in time for juniors and seniors in high school to receive vaccines in the fall. Younger people receiving their vaccines in early 2022.

So, we’ve got some ways to go. I think that we are clearly increasing the herd immunity percentage in our population. But I think we still have some time to go. I would project getting back as near to previous normal as possible. Well, that will probably take us until early 2022 when the vaccine has been rolled out to the entire population.

DocWire News: Any closing thoughts/remarks?

Dr. Shaun Grannis: Well, I think my encouragement to everyone is if you are eligible and able to receive the vaccine, I would strongly encourage you to do so. Where there are mask mandates still in place, I would encourage people to follow that. We know that masks do help. We know that social distancing does help. We are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, but I would encourage people to maintain vigilance, and do what they can to help slow the spread of the disease.