The number of COVID-19 cases in Bexar County is going to increase as businesses start reopening on May 1—but that doesn’t mean everything needs to remain closed.
That’s the message from Juan Gutierrez, the University of Texas at San Antonio professor who is creating daily mathematical models of COVID-19 dynamics for use by local officials.
“How much (will they increase)? We just do not know,” says Gutierrez, chair of the mathematics department and a researcher in mathematical biology and modeling, including as it pertains to asymptomatic carriers of malaria. “The only thing we know now is that the number of cases is more likely to rise than not.”
Still, he says, that doesn’t mean San Antonio can’t find a balance in beginning to restart the local economy while taking precautions to slow the spread of the coronavirus. “In this moment, probably one of the best things we can do is reactivate the economy with face masks,” he says. “We have to keep the economy running. We have to keep opportunities for those who are most vulnerable to have a job and make money.”
If the city and state’s stay home measures remained the same, Gutierrez’ model projects the county would peak at about 1,800 cases (There have already been over 1,300 cases). That number is low, in large part, Gutierrez says, because of early action taken in San Antonio to ban large gatherings and keep people at home.
And while that is good news, Gutierrez says it does not mean social distancing can vanish from our vernacular. If Bexar County were to completely abandon social distancing, a past model projects the area could have seen over 900,000 cases.
To that end, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and Mayor Ron Nirenberg on April 29 announced they will extend the area’s stay home, work safe orders through May 19.
Wolff said they know that people will begin moving around more frequently as businesses reopen. Restaurants, movie theaters, stores and museums can begin reopening May 1 at 25 percent capacity under a state order issued this week by Gov. Greg Abbott.
But, when people are not frequenting an establishment that’s permitted to be open, Wolff and Nirenberg are asking that residents continue to stay at home. The order also continues to ban large gatherings, mandates people to not gather with anyone outside of their household and requires social distancing practices when out in public places like the grocery store.
The state order says that cities cannot impose fines on individuals not wearing face masks, but Wolff and Nirenberg said they will continue requiring residents 10 and older to wear face coverings when in public. They’re asking for the support of local businesses in enforcing the rule. Fines can still be issued if group gatherings occur.
Gutierrez says those precautions are exactly how he planned to personally proceed as businesses begin to reopen.
The professor says that data still is unclear when it comes to how much of the population are asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19, but they know that asymptomatic cases are occurring because of how quickly the virus spreads. Face masks and social distancing are the best ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19 due to asymptomatic carriers, or those who have the virus but do not realize they are sick.
Once businesses begin to reopen, Gutierrez says officials will need to use data to guide them in the weeks to come—looking not just at the number of cases, which will increase, but at the capacity of hospitals. “We have a capacity in the health care system,” he says. “That’s why it’s in the best interest of everyone to keep the spread at a low pace. The spread is apparently inevitable. This is an extremely contagious pathogen.”
Gutierrez shares his updated COVID-19 model daily on Twitter at @biomathematicus.