Report: NC hospitals likely to reach capacity in May if social distancing measures are relaxed in April

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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – North Carolina is likely to see the peak of patients in hospitals due to COVID-19 in May, but the strain on hospitals depends on whether the state maintains social distancing policies past the end of April, according to a team of researchers advising state leaders.

In a new report released Monday, the research team projects an increased likelihood of hospitals running out of beds early next month if social distancing measures are suddenly relaxed at the end of April.

The research team is comprised of experts from: UNC, Duke University, RTI International, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of NC and NoviSci. They looked at data specific to North Carolina in forming their projections.

In a conference call with reporters Monday, the researchers compared formulating these projections to trying to estimate the precise minute when a hurricane will make landfall, noting that changes we make as a society will impact the spread of the disease.

“Social distancing slows this outbreak down. And, the more we can slow this outbreak down in our communities, the less chance we will have of overwhelming our healthcare system,” said Dr. Pia MacDonald, senior director and senior epidemiologist at RTI International.

The report notes that if social distancing measures continue past the end of April, there’s a roughly one-out-of-four chance that hospitals end up not having enough beds in mid-to-late May to handle the number of COVID-19 patients. If those social distancing measures suddenly stop in late April, then it increases to at least a 50 percent change hospitals don’t have enough beds by early May. The report does not address whether that means the state is short by one bed or 1,000 beds.

“People will be denied access to hospitals and will be at greater risk of dying from this disease,” said MacDonald.

Additionally, the researchers also estimate about 250,000 people in the state will become infected if social distancing measures are maintained, but 750,000 would become infected if they’re lifted at the end of the month.

The researchers said they’re not telling Gov. Roy Cooper and other state officials that they must take one particular action, noting the need to balance the economic impacts of prolonged social distancing.

The governor’s stay-at-home order lasts until April 29. He’s also closed schools through May 15.

The University of Washington also has released models that have gained a lot of attention. The most recent data for that model shows North Carolina hospitals experiencing the peak of patients next Monday, April 13. Under that model, North Carolina would not experience a bed shortage. Nearly 500 people would die from COVID-19 by August. Those numbers have improved since last week, when the model projected a shortage of ICU beds and more than 1,700 people dying by August.

When asked about the differences in the University of Washington projections and what her team has found, Dr. MacDonald said, “Modeling is really just best estimates. And, the more detailed the data is that goes into the models, the better the estimates will be.”

“Ours are informed by very granular information about North Carolina: the North Carolina population, the North Carolina healthcare system,” she said. “The estimates are only as good as the people who are moving the levers and the data going into the models. That’s very important.”

Cooper’s office later released a statement about the modeling.

“Modeling is one of many tools the state is using to make informed decisions to keep people from getting sick and to save lives. Right now people need to stay home and keep their social distance. Of course, we all want more of normal life and we will continue to consult health experts, consider public safety and evaluate how and when that can happen,” spokeswoman Dory MacMillan said in an email to CBS 17.

COVID-19 timeline

  • March 3: NCDHHS announces state’s first COVID-19 case
  • March 10: Gov. Roy Cooper declares State of Emergency
  • March 11: World Health Organization declares COVID-19 a pandemic
  • March 13: President Donald Trump declares a National Emergency
  • March 14: Cooper issues Executive Order 117 closing K-12 public schools until at least March 30 and banning gatherings of more than 100 people
  • March 16: NCDHHS recommends no mass gatherings for more than 50 people
  • March 17: Cooper issues Executive Order 118 limiting operations of restaurants and bars, and broadening unemployment insurance benefits
  • March 23: Cooper issues Executive Order 120 which closes public K-12 schools through May 15 and orders businesses such as barbershops and salons to close.
  • March 25: North Carolina reports its first coronavirus-related deaths
  • March 29: Trump extends social distancing orders through the end of April
  • March 31: Cooper signs Executive Order 124 which prohibits utilities from disconnecting people who are unable to pay during the pandemic.
  • April 7: Cooper will sign executive orders limiting customers in retailers and offers child care assistance to certain workers
  • April 14: Coronavirus-related deaths top 100 in North Carolina
  • April 24: Cooper extends stay-at-home order to May 8
  • May 5: Cooper announces Phase One of reopening will being May 8

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