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How Artificial Intelligence Plays A Role In Flu Prevention

Contact tracers can call dozens of people a day. They tell anyone who has come into contact with a coronavirus patient to isolate for 14 days.
Cristina Spano
/
NPR
Health care professionals are using artificial intelligence to “forecast” flu activity in metro areas across the country.

Every year, health care professionals combat people’s misconceptions about the flu vaccine. But this year, the coronavirus pandemic complicates things further. To keep an eye on the matter, experts are using artificial intelligence to predict flu activity in metro areas across the country.

It’s called “FluCast.” Dr. Ravi Johar joined Friday’s St. Louis on the Air to explain how the forecasting technology works. He is chief medical officer of UnitedHealthcare of Missouri.

“Last year, we were able to put out a pretty powerful forecasting program that can determine where flu was increasing, where we thought a hot spot was going to be,” he said. “And sometimes up to four weeks in advance, you could say, ‘There's really something about to happen here.’”

The data collected helps medical centers target additional outreach and resources to those hot spots this flu season.

“First thing we do is start contacting our medical directors that are in each state … and letting them know ahead of time, 'Hey, this looks like your potential hotspot,’” Johar said.

The directors would then inform providers, hospital systems and residents about the area becoming a potential hot spot and how to get the flu shot.

“Because these days, with the strain that's being put on the health care system from COVID, as well as just the normal health care problems that occur, you want to make sure that you're maximizing the beds you've got available,” he added.

Johar also explained that it takes about two weeks for the body to build up enough antibodies in the system to be able to fight the flu after getting the vaccine.

“So ideally, you want to get it before you're exposed,” he said. “Of any year to get it, I think it's absolutely crucial to have it done this year, just because we don't know what's going to happen with COVID and what the interaction may be or what can happen.”

To hear more about how preventative coronavirus measures helped reduce flu infections around the world this year, click the black “Listen” button above or select this segment in the St. Louis on the Air podcast feed.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Lara is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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