UMass, Research Partners Aim to Improve Flu-season Forecasts
AMHERST — Research teams, including one led by biostatistician Nicholas Reich at UMass Amherst, are participating in a national influenza-forecasting challenge to try to predict the onset, progress, and peaks of regional flu outbreaks to aid prevention and control. This year, the Reich Lab is leading an effort to improve the forecasting by increasing the collaboration between groups. “Every year, the Centers for Disease Control host a flu-forecasting challenge,” Reich said. “It’s the most organized and public effort at forecasting any infectious disease anywhere in the world. Our lab is now in our third year of participating, and we find that each year we get a little better and learn a bit more. This year, we wanted to take it to the next level, so we worked with other teams year-round to develop a way that our models could work together to make a single best forecast for influenza. This entire effort is public, so anyone can go to the website and see the forecasts.” While this flu season has started earlier than usual in the northeastern and southern regions of the U.S., according to the most recent data, the forecasts are still showing a fair amount of uncertainty about how big a season it will be, Reich said. “The holiday season is a notoriously difficult time to forecast because typically fewer people go to the doctor, and yet everyone is traveling around spreading or being exposed to infections such as flu.” Reich and colleagues at UMass Amherst’s School of Public Health and Health Sciences collaborate with teams at Carnegie Mellon University, Columbia University, and a group at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, in a group they have dubbed the FluSight Network. It issues a new flu season forecast every Monday for public-health researchers and practitioners that compares the flu trajectory this year to past years. In a recent publication, Reich and colleagues state that their aim is to “combine forecasting models for seasonal influenza in the U.S. to create a single ensemble forecast. The central question is, can we provide better information to decision makers by combining forecasting models and, specifically, by using past performance of the models to inform the ensemble approach.” Added Reich, “we are working closely with our collaborators at the CDC to determine how to improve the timeliness and relevance of our forecasts.” To prepare for this flu season, he and colleagues spent many hours designing a standard structure that each team needed to use when submitting models. This allowed for comparison of methods over the past seven years of flu data in the U.S. They also conducted a cross-validation study of data from the past seven flu seasons to compare five different methods for combining models into a single ensemble forecast. They found that four of their collaborative ensemble methods had higher average scores than any of the individual models. The team is now submitting forecasts from their best-performing model and are posting them once a week this season to the CDC’s 2017-18 FluSight Challenge. Reich estimates there are about 20 teams this year participating in the CDC challenge nationwide, who produce about 30 different models. Each model forecasts the onset of the flu season, how it will progress over the coming few weeks, when it will peak, and how intense the peak will be compared to other seasons. In a heavy flu season, between 5% and 12% of doctor’s visits are for influenza-like illness, and that number varies regionally in the U.S. This metric is one of the key indicators for the CDC of how bad the flu season is, and it is the measure used in the forecasting challenges. “Certainly for the CDC, there are policy decisions that could be impacted by these forecasts, including the timing of public communication about flu season starting and when to get vaccinated. Models can help with all of that,” Reich said. “Also, hospitals often try to have enhanced precautions in place during a certain peak period for the disease. If you do that too early, or for too long, you run the risk of individuals getting tired of taking the extra time to comply with the policies.” Hospital epidemiologists and others responsible for public-health decisions do not declare the onset of flu season lightly, he noted. In hospitals, flu onset — a technical set of symptoms reported to physicians — triggers many extra time-consuming and costly precautions and procedures such as added gloves, masks, and gowns; donning and doffing time; special decontamination procedures; increased surveillance; and reduced visitor access, for example. There is also healthcare worker fatigue to consider. Hospitals want to be as effective and efficient as possible in their preparations and response to reduce time and money spent and worker burnout. The public-health effort to improve flu season forecasts is relatively recent, Reich said. “There has been tremendous progress in how we think about infectious disease forecasting in just the last five years. If you compare that to something like weather forecasting, which has been going on for decades, we’re in the middle of a long process of learning and improvement. Someday, we might be able to imagine having a flu forecast on our smartphones that tells us, for example, it’s an early season and I’d better get Mom to the clinic to get her vaccination early this year. We’re close, but that’s not here quite yet.”

Massachusetts Adds 6,700 Jobs in November
BOSTON — The state’s total unemployment rate dropped to 3.6% in November, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development announced Thursday. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ preliminary job estimates indicate Massachusetts added 6,700 jobs in November. Over the month, the private sector added 7,300 jobs as gains occurred in leisure and hospitality; education and health services; construction; professional, scientific, and business services; and manufacturing. The October estimate was revised to a gain of 3,200 jobs. From November 2016 to November 2017, BLS estimates Massachusetts has added 65,200 jobs. The November unemployment rate was five-tenths of a percentage point lower than the national rate of 4.1% reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Year-to-date the jobs and labor force estimates indicate a strong and stable economy in the Commonwealth. Since December 2016, Massachusetts is estimated to have added 62,200 jobs, 64,300 more residents are participating in the labor force, and the unemployment rate remains low, averaging 3.8%. November also marks the 13th consecutive month of private-sector job growth, with manufacturing adding 1,600 jobs,” Labor and Workforce Development Secretary Rosalin Acosta said. The labor force decreased by 8,200 from 3,656,000 in October, as 4,000 fewer residents were employed and 4,200 fewer residents were unemployed over the month. Over the year, the state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate increased five-tenths of a percentage point from 3.1% in November 2016. There were 18,300 more unemployed residents over the year compared to November 2016. The state’s labor-force participation rate — the total number of residents 16 or older who worked or were unemployed and actively sought work in the last four weeks — decreased one-tenth of a percentage point to 65.4% over the month. The labor-force participation rate over the year has increased by 0.7% compared to November 2016. The largest private-sector percentage job gains over the year were in construction; professional, scientific and business services; leisure and hospitality; and other services.

Applications Open for 2018 Local Farmer Awards
AGAWAM — The Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation (HGCF), in partnership with Big Y and a sponsorship team, announced the fourth year of the Local Farmer Awards, supporting local farmers in Western Mass. with funds for infrastructure improvements and farm equipment. Launched in 2015, the awards draw attention to the importance of local farmers to the region’s economy and health. “Big Y has been supporting local farmers since we began over 80 years ago,” said Charles D’Amour, Big Y president and COO. “Through our partnership with the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation, we are providing one more way to help the local growers to thrive in our community.” Awards of up to $2,500 will be given to each recipient farmer. The 2017 awards were made to 49 of the 116 applicants. Essential to the program’s success has been the ongoing advice and assistance from the two regional Buy Local farm advocates, Berkshire Grown and Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA). “Local family farms are a part of our culture and economy and the reason we call this area home,” said Philip Korman, executive director of CISA. “This unique farm awards program makes it possible for family farms to strengthen that connection in our communities.” Added Barbara Zheutlin, executive director of Berkshire Grown, “we’re thrilled about the continuation of these financial awards for farmers in Western Massachusetts. This helps build the local food economy in our region.” The application is open through Jan. 31, 2018. Interested applicants are encouraged to visit the website for more information:

DevelopSpringfield Sells 700 State St. to Pride Stores for Redevelopment
SPRINGFIELD — DevelopSpringfield announced the sale of property at the corner of Thompson and State streets to Pride Stores for redevelopment. The site had been identified as a priority for redevelopment in the State Street Corridor Redevelopment Program, a plan focused on the economic revitalization of State Street and adjacent neighborhoods. DevelopSpringfield acquired the former River Inn at 700 State St. in 2013 with adjacent lots on Thompson Street to remove a blight on the neighborhood, promote revitalization, and prepare the site for appropriate commercial redevelopment. The organization performed extensive asbestos remediation, demolished the building, and prepared the site for redevelopment. “We listened closely to the interests of community members, including the Springfield Food Policy Council and the McKnight Neighborhood Council, to identify a developer whose project would meet community needs and be a good neighbor to the many residents near the site,” said Nicholas Fyntrilakis, DevelopSpringfield’s chairman. “Pride’s new store will offer fresh food and produce and address the community’s interests for healthier food options.” Added Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, “this is exactly why my administration created this public/private partnership of DevelopSpringfield. This in-question property had been a troublesome area for the neighborhood for many years. I look forward to the redevelopment of this site with a project that will bring jobs, tax revenue, and a quality retail operator who cares about our community.” The sale of the property was complete on Dec. 15. Construction is targeted to begin in the spring. The new store will include a Pride gas station and convenience store and will feature a variety of convenient food items, Pride Café Bakery, local produce, and fresh healthy food offerings. In addition, incubator space will be provided to a local food entrepreneur. “We are excited to bring Pride Markets to this important area of the State Street corridor,” said Bob Bolduc, owner of Pride Stores. “Not only will the store have the amenities our customers traditionally expect, but it will also have fresh local produce available through an innovative collaboration led by local food advocate Liz O’Gilvie, who will coordinate a farmer’s market on the site.”

MassDOT: $1B Invested in Infrastructure in 2017
BOSTON — The Mass. Department of Transportation announced that approximately $1 billion was invested in improving and upgrading roads, bridges, sidewalks, multi-use paths, and intersections across the state in calendar year 2017. This $1 billion in capital investments included repairs and improvements to 386 bridges in 123 communities and improved road conditions in more than 155 cities and towns across Massachusetts. An additional $30 million was programmed through the Complete Streets and Municipal Small Bridge programs in order to support local transportation planning and community bridges not eligible for federal aid. “The Baker-Polito Administration has focused on improving the reliability and resiliency of our transportation infrastructure to ensure that people throughout the Commonwealth are able to drive, walk, bike, or use public transit and reach the places they need to go,” said Transportation Secretary and CEO Stephanie Pollack. “By investing in our roads, bridges, sidewalks, multi-use paths, and intersections, we can provide better options to travelers and allow them to utilize their preferred mode of transportation to reach their jobs, homes, businesses, and places that improve their quality of life.” Among the notable construction project highlights from 2017 are reaching the full beneficial use milestone for the $148 million I-91 viaduct rehabilitation project in Springfield approximately eight months ahead of schedule. The majority of the work has now been completed, and the lanes and ramps on I-91 have reopened.

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