UVA model: social distancing is working

Published 4:42 pm Thursday, April 16, 2020

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New cases of COVID-19 holding steady


Virginia’s social distancing efforts that began on March 15 have paused the growth of the COVID-19 epidemic in the commonwealth, with current trends now suggesting that Virginia’s statewide hospital bed capacity will remain sufficient in the near future.

That was the key takeaway from new COVID-19 impact modeling, which Gov. Ralph Northam presented on Monday in partnership with researchers from the University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute and the nonprofit RAND Corporation.

In the UVA model, which factored in disease dynamics such as transmissibility, incubation period, population density and social behavior, “paused” growth means that the rate of new cases is holding steady rather than increasing. The Biocomplexity Institute modeled five potential outcomes, exploring slowing growth versus pausing growth with social distancing in place until April 30 and June 10 compared to no mitigation.

“Currently, it appears as if the Commonwealth of Virginia is tracking with the pause scenario, which means that the residents of Virginia are doing an excellent job with mitigation,” said Bryan Lewis, research associate professor for the Network Systems Science and Advanced Computing division for the Institute. “Even without perfect projections, we can confidently draw conclusions.”

But despite Virginia’s success with social distancing thus far, lifting travel restrictions too early could quickly lead to a second surge of new cases, Lewis warns.

“We plan to incorporate outcomes specific by age, integrate the role of seasonality and analyze mitigation techniques such as a Test-Trace-Isolate approach,” he said.

“We are proud to be working with some of the top minds in the country on these projections,” Northam said. “While the data is limited, we can draw a few key conclusions: First, social distancing is important, and it’s working in Virginia. Second, while we continue to work closely with our hospital systems and other health care partners to prepare for a potential surge in acute cases, we are optimistic about our statewide hospital bed capacity. Finally, it’s clear we need to be responsible about how we ease restrictions, so we can keep Virginians safe and protect public health.”

“From the beginning, Gov. Northam has made it clear that everything we do must be grounded in science, public health expertise and data,” said Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources Daniel Carey, M.D. “These models change every day, but we can use various models to help inform a range of outcomes we may be facing so we can make sure that Virginia is ready for all possible scenarios. Like every other state and many other countries, we are preparing for how we can move forward in a way that does not trigger another medical surge.”

The UVA Biocomplexity Institute has been on the forefront of epidemic modeling and mitigation since 2002, supporting the federal government and other countries through several epidemics, including planning for H5N1, the 2009 swine flu pandemic, the MERS outbreak of 2012 and the Ebola outbreaks of 2014 and 2019. Institute researchers have worked in partnership with United States government agencies since early 2020 to inform evidence-based decision making for the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Several groups have produced models to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic might progress and to explore potential policy options, said Carter Price, a senior mathematician at the RAND Corporation. “Each of these models has strengths and weakness, and are likely to evolve as more and better data become available. We are helping the leadership of the Commonwealth of Virginia assess the different models so that policy can be made with the best available information.”