CAMDEN — In February, Rutgers University-Camden mathematics professor Benedetto Piccoli became aware of the gathering storm the novel coronavirus was building over his native Italy. And from what he knew about the perception of the virus in the United States at that time, he predicted we would not be adequately prepared to handle what was about to happen without swift action.

Rutgers-Camden's early research, led by Piccoli, was cited by Gov. Phil Murphy in the earliest days of the pandemic, and even now as multiple vaccines roll out across the state, the modeling Piccoli and his team have been doing may provide an outline of what we should expect over the next three to five months.

Much of the modeling is based on public transportation usage and trends, as opposed to cell phone-based mobility used in models like the frequently referenced Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.

"As you can imagine, people using, for instance, public transportation may expose themselves more to being infected than others not using it," Piccoli said.

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In addition to Rutgers undergraduate and graduate students, research partners include the engineering and science departments at Cornell and Vanderbilt Universities.

Findings are released through the Senator Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs at Rutgers-Camden.

Piccoli said using transportation data to predict virus transmission is tricky, because it leads to two contradicting conclusions.

"One would be, you want to lock down and diminish the use of transportation so to contain the pandemic," he said. "And the second force would be, to keep it open to allow economic recovery."

As the Pfizer vaccine continues to be circulated to healthcare facilities, and the Moderna vaccine arrives in New Jersey this week, those rollouts will factor in to future calculations, including the "expected consequences" of government officials' decisions.

"That's exactly the hope that we have continuing this project, to provide more and more tools for the decision-makers to be supported in their decisions," Piccoli said. "We are in the midst of a pandemic with a vaccine becoming available, and this is probably the first time in history that that's happened. So there is still a space for models."

Much more on Rutgers-Camden's ongoing research can be found at rand.camden.rutgers.edu.

Patrick Lavery is New Jersey 101.5's afternoon news anchor. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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