New data and models offer additional insight into how COVID-19 will affect North Carolina in the coming months. The work includes an interactive platform that offers state- or county-wide projections of how the changes in harm reduction efforts – such as the use of masks – and the increase in harm reduction efforts are made. More infectious variants of COVID-19 could affect the spread of COVID in North Carolina.
While the platform examines metrics such as state-level infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, county-level models focus only on infections.
The work stems from a complex model developed by researchers at North Carolina State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Georgia Tech, and East Carolina University. The model can help us understand the spread of COVID-19 and the factors, such as non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs), that influence it. An earlier version of the model, which used data from Georgia to examine the impact of the quarantine, was Posted in BMC Public Health.
“As confident as we are in our findings, we would normally wait until they passed the peer review before making them public,” says Julie swann, who played a leading role in the modeling work. “However, we see a lot of talk, in the headlines and elsewhere, that suggests the pandemic has run its course in the United States. We believe this may be misleading and believe that sharing these results now could help reduce the number of people affected by COVID-19 over the next seven months in North Carolina and states with similar vaccination rates. Swann is the Department Head and A. Doug Allison Emeritus Professor in the Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at NC State. Swann is also leading a team selected by the CDC and the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists (CSTE) to support forecasting, modeling of interventions and reporting of results related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The model shows that even after 40% of the population has been vaccinated, continued use of masks could prevent hundreds of thousands of additional cases and thousands of deaths in North Carolina by the end of 2021.
“Our model includes recent vaccination data and up-to-date information on the spread of more contagious variants of COVID-19 in the United States,” says Swann. “It is now believed that these contagious variants account for over 60% of cases in the United States
“Our main findings are that the continued use of masks and other NIPs would save lives while giving more time to continue immunizing,” says Swann. “It is also concerning that we see persistent or increased inequalities in disease burden under the more infectious variants. In other words, our models suggest that – if we move forward in efforts to reduce harm reduction efforts – there will continue to be a disproportionate number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths in historically marginalized populations.
“A critical variable affecting cases, hospitalizations and deaths is the degree of contagion of the COVID-19 variant,” says Erik Rosenstrom, a Ph.D. student at NC State who is involved in the modeling work. “The more contagious the variant, the worse the situation. The B.1.1.7 variant which is now dominant in the United States is believed to be 30-50% more infectious than earlier strains.
“We have no control over infectivity. But two other important variables are under our control: vaccination and mask use. Getting vaccinated and wearing a mask – especially for unvaccinated people – makes a big difference. It is better that only unvaccinated people wear masks rather than masks, but it is really difficult to apply. “
“It’s important to note that the vaccines used in the United States are still quite effective against most of the newer variants that we are seeing,” says Swann. “And vaccines are exceptionally effective at preventing serious illness in vaccinated people who are infected. Concerns about newer variants make it more important to get the vaccine, not less. Although the pace of immunizations has slowed, we know that continued efforts to reduce barriers to access can help people choose to be immunized. Continued efforts can also help increase the immunization rate in populations where it remains lowest, including rural areas, in low-income areas, and among young adults. “
The researchers also developed a platform that allows users to examine the impact of various risk reduction scenarios they studied at the state or county-by-county level. Users can access this platform at http://go.ncsu.edu/covsim.
“The table dashboard is set up so that you can view the county-level model results in specific scenarios,” says Jessica Mele, a Ph.D. student at NC State who is involved in the work. “Currently, you can compare estimates of daily and cumulative infections based on various combinations of vaccine deployment speed, coverage, efficacy, and whether or not NMIs are maintained. We estimate true infections, which often represent a much higher number than laboratory-confirmed positive cases. “
The work is part of a larger inter-agency effort that includes Julie ivy and Maria mayorga, who are professors of industrial and systems engineering at NC State; Nicole Colberg, NC State Undergraduate Student Mehul Patel, research assistant professor in emergency medicine at UNC; Kristen Hassmiller Lich, associate professor of health policy and management at UNC; Paul Delamater, assistant professor of geography at UNC; Ross boyce, assistant professor of medicine at UNC; Karl Johnson, a Ph.D. student at UNC; Pinar Keskinocak, William W. George Chair and Professor at the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Georgia Tech; and Raymond Smith, assistant professor of engineering at the University of East Carolina.
The work was supported by a grant from CDC and CSTE; and by the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, under grant UL1TR002489.