UB model projects COVID plateau, but then uptick when restrictions ease

Apr 30, 2020

A model produced by the University at Buffalo indicates that COVID-19 hospitalizations in Erie County are at a plateau. But experts there say when public restrictions are eased, there will be a local rise in hospitalizations. The challenge is keeping that second anticipated increase down while society attempts to reopen under a "new normal."

Peter Winkelstein, a healthcare informatics expert at UB, said the model produced at the university uses May 31 as a starting date. It was a number, he added, that was "picked from a hat" and "not a magic number." According to their projections, the county's COVID curve has been in a relative extended plateau, but once the state begins easing restrictions put in place to counter the spread of the virus, there will be a new increase in hospitalizations.

Peter Winkelstein, executive director, Institute for Healthcare Informatics at the University at Buffalo
Credit University at Buffalo

"And this should not be a surprise because it's exactly what you'd expect. The social distancing is working to keep things keep things under control. And if you relax the social distancing a bit, then you're going to see an increase in the number of cases," he said.

Winkelstein pointed out that earlier in the pandemic, models projected Erie County could, without countermeasures, have potentially reached a spike in cases by mid-to-late-April that would have overrun the local healthcare system. That hasn't happened, and UB experts and Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein credit physical distancing and other protective measures for keeping the curve down.

"We have been effective in getting to where we need to be, in terms of protecting our people in our community, keeping our numbers down, staying way below what our hospital capacity is, so we can take care of the people that do need to go into the hospital," Burstein said.

The key to keeping an anticipated second increase to a minimum, experts say, will be a cautious approach that includes environmental changes, being selective about which businesses are the safest to open, continued behaviors such as distancing and wearing masks in public, and more testing and contact tracing. 

"Hopefully those normals will stick and will be our new normal, even when COVID-19 is a vaccine-preventable disease," Burstein said. "Hopefully another new normal will be good access to COVID-19 testing and even a more timely diagnostic technology like we have for influenza."

According to UB's model, a lack of such disciplines could threaten the local healthcare system with an overrun of patients needing ICU by mid July.

According to Winkelstein, the virus is here to stay and "herd immunity" won't be achieved any time in the near future.

"It probably doesn't really start to get better until we have the vaccine," he said.  "And I think your vaccine— this is not my area of expertise — but in my opinion, we'll be lucky to have the vaccine next year."