Multiple forecast models show North Texas could see a second wave of coronavirus cases over the summer.
Both the PolicyLab model at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a similar model out of UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas are monitoring how contagious the disease is based on factors like population density, demographics and how well people are social distancing.
Think of these forecast models like an early warning system.
Researchers collect a bunch of data and put it through their model to determine the chances of something happening. Then they share the findings so people can make informed decisions. For instance, if the weather forecast showed rain, you might grab an umbrella on your way out the door.
"We want to be as careful and conservative as we can be in trying to say what might happen over the next four weeks so people can have an honest appraisal of what they might do,” David Rubin, the director of PolicyLab, said. “Are you going to take that umbrella with you?"
As the Texas economy reopens and social distancing relaxes, the PolicyLab predicts COVID-19 will become more contagious in North Texas, resulting in higher case counts.
Rubin said it's especially worrisome for densely populated areas like Dallas and Houston.
However, if people wear masks, practice good hand hygiene and stay six feet apart in public, "it gives you more flexibility to open your economy safely,” according to Rubin.
Some think Texas is reopening too fast.
Dr. Philip Huang is the director of Dallas County Health and Human Services. He said Dallas County still hasn’t met the widely recognized criteria to reopen.
"What we haven't seen is that 14 day decline in those indicators that everyone said we really should see before we start opening up,” Huang said.
Just this week, Dallas County reported the highest single-day number of new coronavirus cases. And County data shows hospitalizations for COVID-19 aren't declining.
Rubin said those are both signs the coronavirus may be spreading more quickly.
On the other hand, UT-Southwestern's model predicts hospitalizations will decline in the next few weeks.
Trish Perl is the lead researcher on the model at UT-Southwestern. She said forecasts aren't 100% accurate and shouldn't be the only factor when making decisions about how to manage COVID-19.
"They're kind of one of the pillars and information sources that is used to help understand where this may be going,” she said. “But also to understand the impact of things that have been done."
The UT-Southwestern model shows current prevention measures are about 66% effective at curbing the spread of COVID-19.
"If we let that drop from 66% to 63%, we could see enough of an uptick in the contagiousness,” Perl said. “That it could have a dramatic impact on the number of new cases we would have everyday."
Huang said another area of concern is the transmission happening as crowds gather to protest police violence against black people.
"When you have large crowds of people, with many not using the cloth facial coverings, and a lot of screaming and y'know a lot of droplet spread. Those things are concerning from an infection control standpoint," Huang said.
But a spike in cases doesn’t mean North Texas is in dire straits.
As long as people follow public health guidelines and local hospital systems aren't overwhelmed, Perl said it’s manageable. Both labs said following these guidelines are the best way to control transmission.
Warm weather could also help quell the spread of the virus, so researchers are monitoring how high heat and humidity affect transmission.
Rubin said policy changes like mandatory paid sick leave would also help slow the spread by making it easier for people to stay home.
"Forcing people to make a decision between earning income versus working without pay is really hard,” Rubin said. “It's really hard to quarantine people for 14 days and tell them they're not going to get paid anything, right?"
Dallas and other Texas cities have passed paid sick leave ordinances, but they've been held up in court.
While that policy is up in the air, Huang said the forecasts help local leaders make other policy decisions on how to manage the virus.
Despite some less than encouraging predictions from researchers, Huang is optimistic.
"All the efforts and the sacrifice that everyone has made has made a difference,” he said.
As tempting as it may be to go back to the way things were before the pandemic, Huang said those sacrifices are saving lives.
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