One set of researchers thinks we may be.
Houston is one of several cities in the South that could see spikes in COVID-19 cases over the next four weeks as restrictions are eased, according to new research that uses cellphone data to track how well people are social distancing.
The updated projection, from PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, found that traffic to non-essential businesses has jumped especially in Texas and Florida, which have moved aggressively to reopen.
In Harris County, the model predicts the outbreak will grow from about 200 new cases per day to more than 2,000 over the next month.
“Some areas—particularly in the south—that have moved more quickly to reopen are showing a higher risk for resurgence,” the researchers wrote in a blog post. “If people in Houston and Palm Beach, Fla., for example, aren’t being cautious with masking in indoor crowded locations and with hygiene and disinfection, local governments may need to intervene again should they lose control of the epidemic.”
The PolicyLab research is tracking 389 large counties across the country with active outbreaks. It found that projections are best in places that are relaxing restrictions selectively in areas with fewer cases and less transmission.
“Given these cautious actions by our governments, we have already seen that the predicted resurgence has not occurred in most places that are beginning to reopen—rather, daily cases are either plateauing or falling,” the researchers wrote. “But the picture our models are painting for Texas and Florida provide ample evidence to others who would choose to move too quickly. We see these concerns even as we adjust for additional testing capacity that might have inflated our forecasts.”
See here and here for more on the predictions, and here for an earlier press release about their model. As far as I can tell, their model depends on “social distancing measures, defined by travel to non-essential businesses”. They say their data comes from a variety of publicly-available sources, but that’s about as much detail as I can find. I’m not an expert in any way, so I’m in no position to critique this. Fortunately, Dr. Peter Hotez is an expert, and he shared some thoughts about this in Friday’s Chron.
I understand the importance of opening up the economy. The worry that I have is that we haven’t put in place a public health system — the testing, the contact tracing — that’s commensurate to sustain the economy.
Some models show fairly dire predictions for Houston. I’m referring to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia model that shows that by the summer, if we’re only at about 50% of the social distancing, we’re doing now, Harris County could see a steep surge in the number of patients coming into the hospitals and intensive care units.
It’s a model. It’s only as good as the assumptions that it’s based on, and we know the assumptions are not robust. But it gives me pause for concern that unless we have that health system in place, we could be looking at an epidemic that’s far greater than the one we’ve gone through.
Let’s say we’re opening up as as we are now. The way a surge works is, it’s not as if we’re going to see a gradual increase in cases. The models say things will look good for weeks. At first, it’s a flat curve, then it’s flat, it’s flat, and only after all that do you start seeing a steep, steep increase.
That’s what worries me. In those flat weeks we’ll get this sense of complacency, and then people are going to start going into the bars. Forget about one quarter occupancy in the bars. Poison Girl, on Westheimer, is going to be full. And so are all the other places all across Houston.
So: How do we fix that? I think it’s having a health system that’s larger and more extensive than what’s being proposed. We’re going to have to do extensive testing in the workplace so that you’d know if your colleagues have COVID-19 — especially asymptomatic COVID-19.
The number of contact tracers has to be far greater than the numbers that I’m seeing. Gov. Abbott says that Texas has around 2,000 and plans to hire 2,000 more. But consider that Gov. Cuomo in New York State is hiring 17,000 contact tracers. A state that’s quite a bit smaller is hiring a much larger number.
We also still don’t have that syndromic-monitoring system in place that you and I have talked about — an app that would allow Houstonians to report how they’re feeling, or that would track temperatures, like the Kinsa electronic thermometer app.
We should be bringing in our best engineering minds out of the oil and gas industry, out of NASA, out of the Texas Medical Center to put in place an app-based system — maybe make a hybrid between the kinds of things being put out there by Apple or Google or Kinsa, or the kinds of things they’re doing in Australia. We can design one that works for our culture, works for our system. But we’re not assembling the engineers to put that in place.
We don’t even have an epidemiological model for the city of Houston. There’s one for Dallas, put out by UT Southwestern and the University of Texas. Austin’s put out one. But I haven’t seen one for Houston.
So I’m worried that if people are going to start piling into bars and restaurants, and we don’t see the numbers going up, within a couple of weeks from now, it’ll be business as usual. Everybody will feel good, will be saying, “Hey, I’m not seeing the cases go up.”
And it’s going to really accelerate starting in the fall. This is not only true of Houston; it’s true of cities across the U.S. It would happen right before the 2020 election, so I worry about a lot of instability and how we mitigate that.
So there you have it. Keep it up with the social distancing and staying at home, avoid crowds, and wear a mask. We all have a role to play.