Modeling the initial phase of COVID-19 epidemic: The role of age and disease severity in the Basque Country, Spain
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Declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO), COVID-19 has spread rapidly around the globe. With eventually substantial global underestimation of infection, by the end of March 2022, more than 470 million cases were confirmed, counting more than 6.1 million deaths worldwide. COVID-19 symptoms range from mild (or no) symptoms to severe illness, with disease severity and death occurring according to a hierarchy of risks, with age and pre-existing health conditions enhancing risks of disease severity. In order to understand the dynamics of disease severity during the initial phase of the pandemic, we propose a modeling framework stratifying the studied population into two groups, older and younger, assuming different risks for severe disease manifestation. The deterministic and the stochastic models are parametrized using epidemiological data for the Basque Country population referring to confirmed cases, hospitalizations and deaths, from February to the end of March 2020. Using similar parameter values, both models were able to describe well the existing data. A detailed sensitivity analysis was performed to identify the key parameters influencing the transmission dynamics of COVID-19 in the population. We observed that the population younger than 60 years old of age would contribute more to the overall force of infection than the older population, as opposed to the already existing age-structured models, opening new ways to understand the effect of population age on disease severity during the COVID-19 pandemic. With mild/asymptomatic cases significantly influencing the disease spreading and control, our findings support the vaccination strategy prioritising the most vulnerable individuals to reduce hospitalization and deaths, as well as the non-pharmaceutical intervention measures to reduce disease transmission.