UT Researchers Say Social Distancing Is Working. Slacking Off Could Put Us On A 'Catastrophic Path.'

Apr 20, 2020

UT Austin's COVID-19 Modeling Consortium is analyzing data on a rolling basis to chronicle and predict the spread of the coronavirus. The news so far in the Austin-Round Rock area is pretty good. Adherence to social distancing and other guidelines has reduced transmission by over 90%.

But there is no guarantee that it will continue on this path.

Lauren Ancel Meyers is a professor of biology and statistics at UT Austin and leads the consortium. She says the results so far are promising.

The social distancing success in the area means the spread of COVID-19 is progressing at a rate that has not overwhelmed capacity at local hospitals up to this point. 

"Our social distancing seems to be sufficiently effective that we are curbing the number of hospitalizations so that it will remain below the estimated capacity for the Austin-Round Rock area," Meyers said. "But we don't know if that will be true going forward. It will depend on the extent to which people continue to social distance or take other measures to reduce transmission."

And what happens if people slack off, even just a little, on social distancing and other healthy habits?

"If we only achieve an 80% reduction, we're still on a really potentially catastrophic path towards large numbers of hospitalizations and deaths in the area," Meyers said. 

Read the transcript below or listen to the interview to hear more about the consortium's research into the spread of COVID-19. And hear Meyers' words of warning about starting to open up the economy again

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.

Lauren Ancel Meyers: The projections for the Austin-Round Rock area have shown and continue to show that COVID-19 will spread extensively through Austin, causing hospitalizations, causing deaths, if it goes unmitigated. However, we know that since March 24, when the “Stay Home –Work Safe” measure was enacted, that people are adhering pretty extensively. 

People are not going to work unless they’re in an essential workforce. They're staying home. We've been updating our estimates for the effect of those measures on a daily basis. Our estimate is that social distancing has probably reduced transmission by over 90% in the Austin-Round Rock area. 

If we only achieve an 80% reduction, we're still on a really potentially catastrophic path towards large numbers of hospitalizations and deaths in the area. So we're doing a good job, but we have to continue to do a good job to keep the transmission slow and to really, really ensure that we're not going to have a crisis in the coming weeks.  

KUT: I guess this is a bit of a paradox as far as getting people to continue adhering because they hear promising numbers and good news. The temptation might be, “Well, OK, I could go out a little more? OK, I could be a little closer to people because it doesn't seem so bad.” But it's actually the opposite of that, right? 

Meyers: It's the opposite of that for now. The hope is that if we do a good job and we really slow transmission, that we will get to the point in a few weeks, hopefully, where there's just not a lot of virus-spreading in Austin. Right now, we're doing a good job of slowing transmission, but there's still a lot of COVID-19 spreading in Austin. So if we suddenly went back to life as normal, we'd be back to square one. 

And then all those cases right now would start infecting others and we'd see surges in transmission and hospitalizations. So right now, it would be very dangerous for us to suddenly increase the contacts we're having and be less careful.

KUT: How do you react when you hear leaders saying things like they're starting to set up commissions and think about reopening the economy? How do you respond to that?  

Meyers:  I think that it is good for there to be commissions with a lot of experts, epidemiologists, economists and social scientists really thinking hard about how we can get to that point, how we can do it cautiously in a way that's informed by data and science. So commissions are a good idea. Snap judgments about when and where and how we're going to do it are probably not a good idea.  

KUT: How do you create models and look ahead at all of this when a lot of it is based on levels of infection and levels of transmission, and we know that testing is not as widespread as it really should be? 

Meyers: It’s hard to know how much disease is really out there. We don't know if one in 10 cases are being tested, one in five cases are being tested, or if that that proportion is changing through time. That makes it very difficult to look at case count data and say, “Oh, we know how quickly this is spreading,” or, “We know how effective our social distancing is.” 

So that is why we actually look at hospitalization data instead. Hospitalization data is also not going to be perfect. Not every case that is severe will end up in the hospital, and not every case that is severe in the hospital will be tested and confirmed as COVID-19. Nonetheless, we expect that hospitalization data is going to give us a truer picture of how much severe COVID-19 is out there. 

And if we have a true picture of how many cases are being hospitalized on a daily basis, we can sort of back out what that means in terms of how quickly it's spreading and how effective our social distancing measures have been in reducing that spread.   

KUT: We've heard leaders talk about plans if necessary for large-scale, set-up hospitals if we needed to accommodate thousands and thousands of more cases. But it sounds like you're saying if we continue social distancing and staying home as we have been, those would not be necessary.

Meyers: That is, in a sense, what our recent projections are suggesting: that our social distancing seems to be sufficiently effective that we are curbing the number of hospitalizations so that it will remain below the estimated capacity for the Austin-Round Rock area. But we don't know if that will be true going forward. It will depend on the extent to which people continue to social distance or take other measures to reduce transmission. 

That said, there are other places where amassing resources and preparing for the future could be very useful. Ensuring that we can increase testing capacity and test widely when we enter the phase of really trying to make sure that small clusters of cases don't spread widely. Thinking about how we can better protect our vulnerable populations in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. So there still is a need for thinking about how we prepare, how we use resources to protect our population going forward. But as of now, we're not concerned about hospital capacity in the next couple weeks. 

Got a tip? Email Jennifer Stayton at jstayton@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @jenstayton

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