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Operation Outbreak: Educating our community through pandemic simulations

Two cell phones with smiley faces on screens

Participate in Operation Outbreak

Operation Outbreak, a pandemic simulation experience, is back at BYU for the second year in a row. This event started when Microbiology and Molecular Biology student Curtis Hoffman was curious about how he could help BYU students navigate through the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. He contacted the creators of the Operation Outbreak program at Sarasota Military Academy Prep school and the Sabeti Lab at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT.

Operation Outbreak participants use an app to simulate a pandemic outburst similar to COVID-19. Over the span of a couple days, participants carry out their normal, everyday activities while the app tracks who each player comes in contact with. The simulated “virus” can be passed around to the other participants who also have the option to wear masks, get vaccinated, or get tested if they get exposed.

Hand opening the Operation Outbreak app on a cell phone

After successful participation from students and faculty around campus last year, assistant MMBIO professor Brett Pickett and student Craig Decker decided to bring Operation Outbreak back for round two, but with an expanded mindset.

“We did this simulation back when the quarantine and the hybrid classes were all implemented,” Decker says. “Now we are looking at this again to get a side-by-side comparison of what it looks like with the same simulation now that students are back in class. We’re really interested in seeing the changes in this environment.”

The Operation Outbreak team plans to involve BYU students as well as high school students from the Utah County Academy of Sciences to track the viral infections within a large group of people. They hope to eventually involve the community after getting more data and experience.

Pickett and Decker are putting on the event as a way to bring awareness and education to the community. They hope to improve the people’s attitudes towards public health officials through the simulation. “Our goal is not to get people to worry,” says Decker. “Our goal is to educate.”

Operation Outbreak Team

As research variables constantly change, Pickett emphasizes how informing individuals helps them make wiser choices, especially when it comes to trusting the public health system. Awareness of these challenges helps individuals reconcile with the evolving differences and learn to trust the experts.

“We have been blessed with the ability to understand how things work and how to develop treatments,” Pickett says. “So why not take advantage of it?”

Both Pickett and Decker emphasize the importance of personal responsibility within our society when it comes to pandemics. As people become more aware of the power of their immune systems and the benefits of taking necessary precautions, they will be more equipped to avoid spreading diseases while still maintaining a normal lifestyle.

Last year, BYU put on the biggest Operation Outbreak simulation with around 500 people participating. Pickett and Decker hope to break their own record this year with 1000 people participating between both UCAS & BYU students. This event is open to anybody on campus. Sign up on their website today:

Operation Outbreak flyer