Actual NC number of total COVID-19 cases could be 7 times as large as state count, experts say

North Carolina news

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — The actual number of people who have been infected with the coronavirus could be nearly seven times as large as the total reported to the state so far, according to a team of Triangle-area researchers.

Experts from UNC-Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University have published a website that estimates the number of people who may have COVID-19 and forecasts how that number could grow in the coming weeks.

They estimated Friday that a total of 490,618 people have been infected so far — roughly seven times the 70,241 lab-confirmed cases reported that day by the state Department of Health and Human Services.

That estimate also accounts for less than 5 percent of the state’s total population.

The experts’ total includes their estimate of 86,017 people that they consider actively infected, with 42,369 of them also considered infectious.

With a higher number of infected people but no change in the number of fatalities, those estimates could result in a lower mortality rate for the disease.

Paul Delamater, a professor at UNC, who studies population health issues and infectious diseases, says the team created the website out of a desire for a projection model focused solely on North Carolina.

“Fitting a model such that it works well for all states is a lot different than concentrating on one state,” Delamater told CBS 17 News. “And so I really wanted to concentrate on North Carolina itself, just so I could spend the amount of time to make a good model.”

He also wanted to figure out how many people might have been been infected with the virus but have not been tested.

“Testing is not capturing all of the people that have been infected with coronavirus, and I really was not finding any information or any estimates about how many people right now have coronavirus or are actively infectious in my state,” he said. “And so that was kind of what drove me to go down this path.”

And with COVID-19 continuing to spread, they expect those numbers to grow over the next two weeks, with projections of 100,612 active infections on July 17 along with a cumulative count of 610,222 infections.

Delamater said he arrived at the estimates after trying to pinpoint the percentage of infected people that had been tested and lab-confirmed.

“In my initial model, (the assumption was) we’re only capturing 4 percent, all the way to, ‘We’re capturing 20 percent’ and I let that vary in the beginning and right now in the pandemic,” Delamater said. “What happened was, I let the data kind of speak for itself — like, ‘What would it have to be in North Carolina to see these kinds of lab-confirmed case numbers?”

The answer: Less than 25 percent of infected people are being lab-confirmed, according to the website, though that percentage are subject to change daily, he said.

Of course, because they’re projections, they can change based on how people change their behaviors.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty right now about transmission itself and about how many people are actually infectious,” Delamater said. “I think there is still a lot we’re learning.”

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