The Austin Chronicle

UT Modeling Shows Stark Future Without Social Distancing

By Mike Clark-Madison, March 27, 2020, 11:15am, Newsdesk

The chart above tells you everything you need to know: If we don't take the current shelter-in-place orders seriously, and reduce our social contacts with others by 90% over pre-COVID-19 levels, we'll be out of hospital space by May.

That's what's shown by University of Texas at Austin modeling released Thursday, March 26, two days after local leaders instituted the "Stay Home, Work Safe" orders curtailing all non-"essential" activity and limiting gatherings of any size outside the home. According to Austin Public Health, the guidelines that locals have been gradually adopting over the last three weeks have gotten us to 50% social distancing, so more than halfway, but more needs to happen, and fast.

The message sent by Austin Mayor Steve Adler, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, and APH Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott at their latest briefing on Thursday was firm, yet supportive. On the scary side, if we don't get our act together (yet six feet apart), we could be short 20,000 hospital beds in the five-county metro area - for reference, New York City has 23,000. That means, inevitably, that by the end of summer we would see unnecessary deaths, in the thousands, from COVID-19, and more on top of that from other causes that go untreated due to lack of health care capacity.

With this information in hand, Adler and Eckhardt and Escott emphasized, y'all will do the right thing - neither scoff at the science-based realities of the pandemic, nor throw up your carefully washed hands in hopelessness. Reporters participating in Thursday's briefing pushed back on this, calling for law enforcement to turn up on fools flocking to Barton Springs et al., but also pleading for communities and economic sectors - notably construction - who don't want to, or feel they can't, stop working.

But the message from the authorities was clear - no matter how we parse or enforce the rules, the only thing that gets us to 90% is our own individual and collective willingness to follow them, encourage others to do the same, and make them habits for as long as it takes. Officially, that's until April 13 - as it happens, the Easter deadline upon which the White House and its acolytes have fixated - but the current modeling suggests that's anything but guaranteed.

That modeling will of course be ongoing, by a multidisciplinary UT team led by integrative biologist Dr. Lauren Ancel Meyers, who in 2012 created the state-funded Texas Pandemic Flu Toolkit. Austin Public Health has indicated that future modeling, incorporating data that emerges as COVID-19 testing and treatment increases in the Austin MSA, will guide decisions to either tighten or loosen the current shelter-in-place restrictions.

Links below to:

The UT team's full modeling report (PDF)

UT media teleconference with Dr. Meyers and Dr. Clay Johnston, dean of UT Dell Medical School (video)

March 27 briefing with Adler, Eckhardt, Escott (video)

Note: Austin Sanders of the Chronicle is the pool reporter for this briefing.

Austin-Travis County COVID-19 dashboard (desktop) (mobile)

State of Texas COVID-19 dashboard (desktop/mobile) (ADA/Excel)

Copyright © 2021 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.