SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has given the University of Utah $17.5 million to strengthen infectious disease outbreak responses in the Mountain West.

U of U Health researchers are reportedly leading efforts to give data and tools to guide decisions regarding emerging public health threats in the region.

The center is one of 13 to work with the CDC’s Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics to establish an outbreak response network, according to a release. The university said that the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted how a fast an effective response is critical for saving lives.

“The key is to have an effective early response to infectious disease threats,” said Matthew Samore, M.D., the project’s principal investigator and professor of internal medicine at the Spencer Fox Eccles School of Medicine at the University of Utah. “COVID-19 demonstrated the disruptive power of pandemic infections, but other potential pathogens could be even more damaging.”

What experts call “disease forecasting” can be instrumental to a public health response, such as guiding hospitals on how to prepare for patient surges and helping health departments in planning vaccine distribution.

Utah’s new center, called ForeSITE (Forecasting and Surveillance of Infectious Threats and Epidemics), will similarly help to protect communities from novel infectious diseases and existing threats, “ranging from antibiotic resistant bacteria to seasonal influenza,” a release states.

“We see this as a public-academic partnership where we can improve modeling systems and integrate them into day-to-day use in individual health care systems and health departments,” says Lindsay Keegan, Ph.D., the project’s co-lead and a research assistant professor in the university’s Department of Internal Medicine. “Then, they can run the models when they need them.”

Using these tools, health officials said they will be able customize responses to meet the needs of their communities.