Three Texas-based public health experts, including a Texas A&M epidemiologist, had an hourlong forum midday Thursday to provide data and insight into COVID-19 modeling and testing in the state.

The panelists discussed the nature of projection models, the importance of continued education about best health practices and talked about the potential dangers of reopening the economy — and society — too quickly. 

Rebecca Fischer, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Texas A&M’s School of Public Health, said recent studies indicate a need for continued public health education on the nature of transmission and why measures such as masks and thorough hand-washing are vital in mitigating the spread.

“Those will inform things like how are we safely able to be in a restaurant or a store with individuals. That will inform how business owners approach distancing their employees and sanitizing the facilities,” Fischer said. “Fortunately, we’ve learned a lot through this first lockdown. When we first shut things down, we didn’t know any other way. … What we’ve now learned is that we have some ways that we can still operate an economy and consumer-based society [by] being creative and exercising caution.”

The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas, founded in 2004 and located in Austin, convened the virtual panel. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas A&M Hagler Institute faculty fellow, served as the discussion’s moderator. Hotez noted that Texas has a relatively low number of cases considering its large population compared to some states.

“One of the reasons that we did so well is that we enacted social distancing measures pretty early on in the game,” he said, pointing to research indicating a strong correlation between the number of intensive care unit admissions and how quickly preventative measures were put in place.

According to the Texas Tribune, there have been 43,851 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Texas as of Thursday evening, and 1,216 people have died. As of Thursday, 1,648 patients are known to be hospitalized in Texas, according to the Tribune.

“I think the big question for us now is: How do we move forward now that there’s been a lot of pressure to open up the economy and to get people back to work and restore some semblance of normal life?” Hotez said. “How do we do this in a way that recognizes that it’s not just a matter of the economic recovery — that we build the public health infrastructure that we need to sustain that economic recovery?”

“My big worry is that things are going to sort of move along pretty well for the next few weeks, but then as we head into the summer and fall, we see a big uptick in the number of cases again and the ICUs will start to fill up, especially in our urban centers,” he added.

Lauren Ancel Meyers, an integrative biology professor at the University of Texas, heads the COVID-19 Modeling Consortium at UT, where her research team used smartphone location information to track and link transmission in China, she said Thursday.

“Looking at the early case data, [we] published one of the very first studies that showed that this coronavirus was spreading much more quickly and much more silently than SARS,” Meyers said of her team’s work, adding that those with COVID-19 are contagious before they show symptoms, making the virus difficult to contain.

According to Meyers, mobility data — information from tens of millions of phones — is what drives the mortality forecasts of COVID-19 transmission in Texas and elsewhere. She shared a slide indicating that the amount of time people are spending at home, which peaked in mid-April, has dipped, and time spent at parks, medical facilities and restaurants has climbed in recent weeks.

Meyers showed slides of projections that use a variety of levels of activity and precautionary measures taken. A projection for the city of Austin that used a level of activity halfway between pre-pandemic movement and peak shelter-in-place restrictions showed a dramatic rise in cases in the early summer. Another projection shown that did not overwhelm Austin hospitals included another shelter-in-place order early in the summer. 

“If we really relaxed to where transmission rebounds at about half of baseline, we would expect to see an unmanageable surge in hospitalizations. … By mid-June, we would have hospitalizations that far exceed our optimistic capacity,” Meyers said. “This is not a situation that, I think, any decision maker would allow their community to run into. Everybody agrees that we should put our foot on the brake before that happens.”

Hotez asked Fischer and Meyers about herd immunity, and Fischer replied that until it is possible to liberally test large numbers of people, including those without symptoms, it will be challenging to gauge the infection rate in Texas and elsewhere. “We don’t understand immunity with this disease yet,” Fischer said.

To view the panel discussion, visit https://bit.ly/forumcovid19.

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