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Simulating Campus's COVID with Operation Outbreak

Since March 2020, no one has escaped the constant influx of COVID-19 information. Wading through the abundance of content, Curtis Hoffmann, BYU microbiology and molecular biology student, found a way to leverage education to rebuild trust in our public health systems during the pandemic. He stumbled across Operation Outbreak, a pathogen outbreak simulation, and knew he needed to bring it to Utah County and Brigham Young University.

“By empathy, these students were learning what actually happens during an epidemic; they were becoming experienced, and thereby rebuilding trust with their health systems,” Hoffmann explained.

Operation Outbreak team
Photo by Todd Jackson

Hoffman partnered with Operation Outbreak co-founders Dr. Todd Brown and Dr. Pardis Sabeti to bring the simulation to BYU and to local K-12 schools. He expressed the importance of bringing the simulation to students: “I believe it starts with our generation because we are on the cusp of becoming the next scientists, doctors, and public health professionals.”

Operation Outbreak needs BYU students to participate in a virtual “infection” to scope out the effects of vaccination and herd immunity on a college campus. Students interested in participating in Operation Outbreak may visit for instructions. Students will need to keep Bluetooth on for anonymized interaction tracing and watch for vaccine availability through the app. The simulation will begin “infecting” students on February 19.

Operation Outbreak interaction
Photo by Todd Jackson

Hoffmann introduced the opportunity to facilitate the simulations in Utah County K-12 schools to Brett Pickett, BYU microbiology and molecular biology professor. “I became interested in how it could be used as an experiential learning platform, Pickett said. “Specifically, to show students first-hand how diseases such as SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, can spread throughout a group of people.”

With Pickett on board, Hoffmann formed the Operation Outbreak student association with Craig Decker as BYU Operation Outbreak project lead along with Kennedy Gifford, Madi Gray, and Thomas Arnold as Alpine School District project coordinators. Decker was intrigued with the project because “it addresses a reality that many of us might be scared to know: How many people do we come in contact with each day?” while exposing students to the many “biological and statistical complexities that are involved with a pandemic.”

Operation Outbreak will assist in assessing how COVID-19 transmission is affected by vaccination and herd immunity by gathering anonymized data on interactions. Actions observed in the simulation parallel real life, providing an ideal way to learn about contributing factors to outbreaks, improve public health education, and to gain empathy for those working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Above anything else, Hoffmann saw this as an opportunity to engage in an experiential learning opportunity for both university and K-12 students. Hoffmann stated, “Since becoming BYU president, President Kevin J Worthen has pushed for experiential learning and inspiring learning across all disciplines. I believe that Operation Outbreak is one way we can contribute to that goal. Operation Outbreak is another way that we as college students are ‘enter[ing] to learn, go[ing] forth to serve.’ We are serving our community by engaging students on all levels with a platform that elevates their empathy for the public health.”

Simulation results infographic

View the Operation Outbreak simulation visualization.