AS COVID-19 creeps up, models predict more infections coming

LILO H. STAINTON, HEALTH CARE WRITER | MAY 17, 2022

NJ Spotlight News

Visitors peer into the room of a COVID-19 patient in an intensive care unit.

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Public health leaders nationwide expect COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations will rise once again in the fall, as they did in past years and like the familiar seasonal cycles of the flu.

But some mathematical models predict a handful of states, including New Jersey, will see the coronavirus continue to expand its reach for another two weeks before trending downward over the summer. Hospitalizations here double between now and June 1, according to one analysis highlighted by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

New Jersey health officials said Monday that their latest modeling is now being “reviewed and finalized” — the same response provided when NJ Spotlight News asked for these predictions last week, on Monday and Thursday.

“Modeling is done every two weeks by the Department’s Predictive Modeling team and is reviewed internally and shared with acute care hospitals,” health department spokesperson Nancy Kearney said.

Predictions are not always on target

State officials started in late March 2020 to use CHIME, a mathematical model developed by the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school, to help predict hospital needs. The predictions — based on factors like current hospitalizations, population size and social distancing restrictions — have not always been borne out. For example, in late March 2021 the state predicted cases would climb all spring before they slowly declined; instead, daily diagnoses trended downward until early July.

“Under this scenario, we’re in for a long, hot summer,” Gov. Phil Murphy said at a regular pandemic media briefing in March 2021. “So please God, this is not what we have to live through.”

This year federal officials are warning of a summer wave of COVID-19 across southern states, similar to increases seen in the warmer months of 2020 and 2021, a particular concern because vaccination and booster rates are lower there than in the northeast and other regions, the Washington Post reported earlier this month. They also predicted up to 100 million infections could occur nationwide during the fall and winter, as immunity wanes and people spend more time indoors.

President Joe Biden’s administration shared these predictions with reporters to help convince the U.S. Congress to approve additional pandemic funding for new vaccines and treatments. But a bipartisan agreement to provide an additional $10 billion has been stalled by a debate about public health protections at the U.S. border with Mexico, the Post reported.

“Without timely COVID funding more Americans will die needlessly. We will lose our place in line for America to order new COVID treatments and vaccines for the fall, including next-generation vaccines under development, and be unable to maintain our supply of COVID tests. In the fall, if we are hit by new variants, it will be too late to get the tools needed for protection — critical treatments that will be available in Europe, but not the United States,” Biden said on May 9.

Cases in NJ up 74% in two weeks

Nationwide, COVID-19 cases are up 61% over what they were two weeks ago, according to the New York Times, while in New Jersey they rose 74% in that time. However, the actual number of infected people is being severely undercounted, given the prevalence of home tests for which results are not automatically captured in official records. Over that time hospitalizations grew by 24% across the country and by 38% in New Jersey, the Times reported.

While the new daily diagnoses have been trending down since the end of last week — and are far from the peaks reached last winter — Friday’s total of nearly 6,500 confirmed and likely cases was the highest reported since the end of January, according to an NJ Spotlight News analysis of state data. Hospitalizations have been climbing for six weeks and nearly 800 COVID-19 patients were in acute care as of Monday. The rate of transmission, or RT — a critical measure of viral spread — shows the presence of the virus has been growing here since early April.

The level of COVID-19 viral activity is considered “high” statewide, according to data for the week ending May 7 collected by the state’s communicable disease service, except for Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties, where it is considered “moderate.” No regions were found “very high” or “low.” Nearly nine out of 10 cases were attributed to the omicron subvariant B.A.2, which spreads even faster than its highly transmissible parent strain.

The limits of forecasting

A separate federal CDC map of hospital capacity — based largely on admissions data, not new cases — paints a different picture. Using these inputs, most of South Jersey is shown to be experiencing “high” COVID-19 impact, while Salem County’s is “medium” and Cumberland’s is “low.” North Jersey is all shown as having “medium” COVID-19 impact except for Morris and Sussex counties, which are listed as “high.” According to this map, which was created to help the public understand the local impact of the disease on health care systems, no county is undergoing “very high” impact.

This activity could translate into a fourfold increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations between May 1 and June 1, both nationwide and in New Jersey, according to the most severe of the 17 predictive models reviewed by the CDC. During that time, admissions would at least double in Maryland, triple in New York state and grow four times in Pennsylvania, under the most dramatic predictions. Hospitalizations in Delaware could grow fivefold, it shows.

But these forecasts have their limits. For reasons that are not clear, the CDC’s multi-model analysis lists New Jersey’s May 1 COVID-19 hospitalizations at around 100 when the state actually reported 415 total patients that day. Depending on the model, the predictions range from around 50 to nearly 400 hospitalizations here by June 1. Using the actual May 1 patient load as a starting point for the worst-case model suggests that in two weeks there could be more than 1,600 New Jerseyans hospitalized with COVID-19.

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-05-17 03:05:25 -0700