MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – Even as Alabama moves to lift more restrictions imposed to fight the novel coronavirus, a new model suggests the state’s hardest-hit county is poised for an explosion of new cases.
The forecast, produced by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Policy Lab and the University of Pennsylvania, projects a six-fold increase in Mobile County’s daily average of new cases by the middle of June.
Unlike some other models, it is less concerned with the official polices in place and focuses more on what actually is happening on the ground. It includes factors like heat and humidity, which tend to slow the virus, and attempts to measure how well people are “social distancing.” As a proxy for that, the model uses cell phone GPS data from Unicast to determine how often people are going to “non-essential” businesses.
David Rubin, the director of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Policy Lab, told FOX10 News that the forecast offers a warning.
“The inputs are the largely reliant on what’s actually happening in Mobile,” he said. “I mean, that’s probably, you are seeing some increased cases, and so that’s, that is contributing to the elevated risk we’re forecasting.”
The Unicast data indicate that as of May 14, Mobile County had a 36 percent decline in travel to “non-essential” businesses compared to the pre-pandemic period. That places it in the bottom half of counties examined. Rubin added that the heat and humidity likely will not be as much of an advantage for Mobile going forward because high temperatures arrive earlier in the South and that already is baked into the projections.
For much of the past month, the county’s seven-day average in new cases has hovered in the 30s and 40s. On May 14, it hit 63. The model shows a steep surge beginning right about now, represented by a dotted line that shoots up at nearly a 90-degree angle. By June 17, it projects an average of 366 per day.
The dire projections in Mobile mirror similar predictions for other large counties throughout the South, where governors generally have been more aggressive about allowing businesses to reopen. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday announced that some of the last restrictions on businesses as part of her “Safer at Home” order would end on Friday. Theaters, bowling alleys and other entertainment venues are allowed to reopen.
Rendi Murphree, the top epidemiologist with the Mobile County Health Department, said a sudden spike in cases is plausible.
“Certainly. I mean, this is a highly infectious virus. And you know, we, under the ‘Safer at Home’ order, you know, there is more movement around the community,” she said. “We know that people are not complying with our strong recommendation to wear a face covering when you’re out in the public and maintain that 6-foot distancing. So, we are concerned the effect that that will have on the rate of new cases.”
The policy lab generally forecasts a rosier future for counties in the Northeast, which tended to have severe outbreaks and where people are staying at home more – either because local governments require it or because they are reticent to leave.
If the model proves accurate, the declining new infections in those places combined with the increased number in Alabama will produce the strange result of a greater number of new daily cases in Mobile than many former hotspots with much higher populations. Philadelphia, the Bronx, Manhattan, Baltimore and Boston are all places that will have fewer cases a day by June under the model. In many cases, the difference will be substantial.
But Rubin said the numbers are a forecast, not destiny. He said “smart, common sense” individual actions can hold the virus at bay. And it does not have to involve locking down the economy and keeping everyone at home, he added.
Rubin said he is sensitive to the economic devastation and the fact that it takes working families the longest to recover from downturns. The better approach, he said, is to follow advice on wearing masks in public, limiting non-essential trips and keeping physical space between people out in public.
“I think communities can do it safely, and particularly Alabama, ’cause you’re not as densely crowded down there in Alabama,” he said. “And you have the chance to reverse this forecast by modifying the routines that you’re doing.”
Rubin noted that Baldwin County so far has avoided a large outbreak. Though it met the population criteria, it has too few cases to even be considered as part of the model. He said be believes population density is part of explanation. But he added that Mobile County can reverse the trend.
“Mobile can become Baldwin with some modifications to their routines,” he said. “But they’re going to have to work harder at it than Baldwin.”
The coronavirus pandemic has spawned a myriad of different models, many of which have been wildly off-base. Rubin acknowledge the limitations of predictions.
“You should look at this as a forecast. … I would never trust one piece of information, including coming from my own models,” he said.