UT modeling shows importance of social distancing for Texas during COVID-19 pandemic


Researchers have examined how COVID-19 would impact 22 metro areas in Texas under scenarios where levels of social distancing differ. (UT Austin Image).

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Americans across the U.S. are keeping up with social distancing duing the COVID-19 pandemic, and a new model from UT shows just how important that practice is for Texas.

According to the report, the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths from the coronavirus in 22 Texas cities could be significantly higher if residents were practicing only moderate social distancing.

The communities in the study represent the largest metropolitan areas in the state. Due to the time-sensitive nature of the subject matter, the team behind the model published it in advance of scientific peer review.

The model indicates that these Texas communities would not be able to avoid a surge of hospitalizations by only reducing social interactions by 50-75%. It determines that a 90% decrease in typical daily contacts is needed to “flatten the curve” of coronavirus cases through the spring and summer.

“Our projections indicate that COVID-19 may quickly exceed healthcare capacity across Texas cities and that extensive social distancing measures can both delay and diminish pandemic surges,” the authors write.

In the projections from the UT model, the only scenario which does not result in overwhelming the Austin-area’s current capacity is the one where in-person intersections by residents are reduced by 90% (Graphic Courtesy UT Austin)

Lauren Ancel Meyers, a professor of integrative biology and statistics and data sciences, leads the team created UT Austin’s U.S. newest COVID-19 Pandemic Model. The research that went into this model was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

“The number of in-person interactions people have with one another matters,” Meyers said. “For the Austin-Round Rock metropolitan area, our models project that we have to eliminate well over half of our typical daily contacts to prevent a critical shortage in hospital and ICU capacity in the next 12 weeks.”

According to a press release from UT, the model’s findings are consistent with models developed by epidemiologists from around the world.

Meyers and her team utilized the advanced computers at UT’s Texas Advanced Computing Center to help with the modeling which used available metrics on disease transmission.

Meyers’ team also created mathematical models using demographics and information about the virus to develop a picture of how it spreads in a metropolitan area. 

Based on characteristics of the coronavirus, the model assumes the number of new infections in a community would double about every four days without social distancing. It also said about 5% of people with COVID-19 would have a case serious enough to warrant going to the hospital.

Meyers and the other authors explain that much remains to be discovered about how the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 spreads, especially in people with mild or no symptoms.

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