Using cellphone data, national study predicts huge June spike in Houston coronavirus cases

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.”

Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, will also see an increase in COVID-19 cases according to the projection, but would still be below 100 new cases per day. Bexar reported 44 new cases on Wednesday, a Hearst Newspapers data analysis shows.

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Texas has been doing well by some measures as it reopens — hospitalizations are mostly steady and the rate of people testing positive for COVID-19 has fallen as access to testing expands. The state reported about 26,000 tests per day over the past week, nearing Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s goal of 30,000.

But daily new cases remain at their highest point since the outbreak began in March. Outbreaks are especially hitting El Paso and meatpacking plants in the Panhandle. Abbott has sent in “surge response teams” to help contain local outbreaks, but as more of the state reopens, public health officials worry that infections will spread too quickly.

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.”

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