Experts: Distancing Rules Improve NC Hospital Odds

Apr 7, 2020

UNC Health set up a medical triage tent in front of its main hospital in Chapel Hill specifically for coronavirus patients.
Credit Jay Price / WUNC

A composite coronavirus forecast from UNC Chapel Hill and Duke University suggests strict social distancing measures may need to stay in place through May. 

Researchers used various models to predict the strain on North Carolina's health care system under two scenarios: keeping current social distancing measures in place through June first, or lifting them entirely when the statewide stay-at-home order expires on April 29th.

If the restrictions stay in place, the analysis says the cases will total around 250,000 by June. But if they're lifted at the end of this month, the number of cases triples to 750,000, according to Mark Holmes of UNC's Gillings School of Global Public Health.

"This tripling is exactly why public health officials across the globe have made social distancing efforts to flatten the curve," said Holmes, adding that hospitals are nearly three times as likely to be overwhelmed if the orders are lifted too soon.

Cooper's current statewide stay-at-home order, which also prevents gatherings of more than 10 people, took effect a week ago and continues until April 29. A ban on dine-in service at restaurants and bars began March 17 and now continues until April 24. Cooper already has closed public schools through May 15. As elsewhere in the country, North Carolina's restrictions have contributed to a historic spike in unemployment benefit claims.

The brief's authors, who also included researchers from RTI International, emphasized they weren't recommending a specific course of action. That would be up to Cooper and other elected leaders.

"Modeling is one tool that helps us prepare for this fight and it shows we will save lives if we stay home and keep our social distance right now," Cooper said in a news release highlighting the report.

North Carolina DHHS data  coming from a majority of state hospitals show that about one-third of inpatient beds and one-in-five intensive care unit beds are currently empty. The department reported more than 2,850 positive COVID-19 cases of Monday. Thirty-three patients have died and at least 270 are currently hospitalized.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, and the vast majority survive. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause pneumonia or death.

The researchers didn't project death totals. Pia MacDonald, a senior epidemiologist at RTI, said if hospitals run out of beds and patients don't get access to care, "we will have more deaths."

UNC's Holmes said maintaining social distancing measures will likely allow hospitals to manage the disease.

"On the other hand, relaxing all social distancing policies on April 29th could place substantial pressure on hospitals that could be outside their ability to manage, even if they expand their capacity to various surge levels," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.