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Maintaining current social distancing policies after April 29 is North Carolina’s best shot at not running out of beds due to COVID-19.

That was the key message of a modeling-based report given at an N.C. Department of Health and Human Services press conference Monday in Raleigh.

The report forecast that North Carolina’s need for acute and intensive care unit hospital beds during the coronavirus outbreak will peak in mid- to late-May. That’s about a month later than the forecast based on models developed at the University of Washington.

Forecasts given at the press conference Monday were based on a composite of three research models developed by a team of epidemiologists and data scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University, RTI International, NoviSci and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina.

Two of the three models were developed by the team and the third was adapted from the University of Pennsylvania to apply to North Carolina.

The University of Washington model assumed very aggressive social distancing policies modeled after those used in Wuhan, China, said Dr. Kimberly Powers, an epidemiology professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. Powers said such strict social distancing policies would drive infection rates down dramatically, but would be hard to accomplish in North Carolina.

The researchers in North Carolina said their forecasts, based on hyper-local modeling, are more realistic than those from UW. Both show North Carolina should have enough hospital beds if current levels of social distancing continue.

“We’ve shown that lifting all social distancing policies after April 29 will lead to about a 50% probability that our acute and ICU bed capacity will be outstripped,” said Dr. Mark Holmes, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Gillings School of Global Public Health.

North Carolina should have enough hospital beds during the pandemic if the current level of social distancing remains in place after April 29, said Pia MacDonald, senior epidemiologist at RTI International and adjunct professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Gov. Roy Cooper’s statewide stay at home order remains in effect until April 29.

Maintaining the current level of social distancing or not will determine whether an estimated 250,000 or 750,000 North Carolinians becoming infected with the virus by June, stated a written summary of the findings shared Monday.

“Under current policies, our models suggest that the volume of available acute care beds throughout the state will be sufficient to handle growing COVID-19-related case volume in the next few weeks,” the summary stated.

“In the second half of April, estimates for the near-term suggest a substantial increase in confirmed case volumes (in North Carolina), to as many as 5,500-6,500 confirmed cases by April 15, up from approximately 2,402 confirmed cases on April 4. The probability that acute care bed demand will outstrip available supply will likely increase by mid-April but remains low.”

The UW researchers think about 500 people will die from COVID-19 in North Carolina, down from the 2,400-plus they predicted a week and a half earlier. The revised forecast takes into account state government policies to keep people apart and slow the spread of the virus, as well as better information from Spain and Italy.

The report given Monday didn’t forecast the number of COVID-19 deaths expected in the state.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, DHHS secretary, said Monday that modeling isn’t a crystal ball and much is still unknown about the coronavirus outbreak. However, she said Monday’s report affirms that actions taken now will determine how the virus impacts North Carolina for weeks and months to come.

“We need to continue to do everything in our power so that fewer people get sick at the same time, while also surging the capacity of our health care system so those who do need hospital care will have it. Please stay home now to save lives,” she concluded.

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