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A Well -Timed Book Puts Ron Fricker in the Expert's Seat

Talk about timing. While the corona-virus started making its way from Europe and Asia to the United States, Professor Ron Fricker of the Department of Statistics was releasing a book that he co-authored. Its title? “Monitoring the Health of Populations by Tracking Disease Outbreaks: Saving Humanity from the Next Plague.”

Written with Steve Rigdon, a professor at Saint Louis University, the book uses historical and contemporary examples to describe how epidemiologists and biostatisticians track, identify, and monitor disease outbreaks, preventing repeats of global pandemics such as the 1918 influenza outbreak that killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide.

“We were motivated to write the book because the work of public health officials often critically depends on the use of statistical methods to help discern whether an outbreak may be occurring and, if there is sufficient evidence of an outbreak, then to locate and track it,” said Fricker, who also serves as senior associate dean in the College of Science. “With the recent outbreaks of diseases such as swine and bird flu, Ebola, and COVID-19, the role that epidemiologists and biostatisticians play is more important than ever.”

So timely was the book with the coronavirus outbreak, that publication was briefly halted for numerical updates of those infected. It was officially released on Feb. 21. As described in the preface, “This book is the story of the application of statistics for disease detection and tracking. It is the story of how medical and public health professionals use statistics to separate critical disease information from all the noise of our modern world so that they can most effectively intervene and mitigate the effects of the disease.”

Fricker soon became an in-demand expert by media both locally and nationally on tracking viruses as the pandemic shut down much of the United States, rattling first- responders and healthcare workers. As of press time, he had been inter-viewed by The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, WVTF Roanoke radio, WFIR Richmond radio, Washington, D.C.’s ABC affiliate WJLA, The Verge, The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, Newsweek, The Boston Globe, and more. He also wrote columns for The Richmond-Times Dispatch and the website The Conversation.

Locally, Fricker is lending his talents as science advisor to the Blacksburg Regional Safety and Health Task Force, and is co-lead, with Laura Hungerford, a professor in the Department of Population Health Sciences in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, of the Virginia Tech COVID-19 Collaborative Modeling effort. There, Fricker and Hugerford are developing mathematical models that provide information to decision makers of how to most appropriately and safely open campus in the fall.