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Curve flattening but researchers say social distancing and phased reopening remain key

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North Carolina has flattened the curve of the novel coronavirus better than previously expected, according to a new report from the Sheps Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

UNC researchers said amount of time it takes for cases to double has increased from 2-4 days in mid-March to 7-8 days in early April and 13-14 days by April 22. However, they point out that some counties are seeing a higher rate of infection because of outbreaks in nursing homes, prisons and food processing plants.

"Viral spread has slowed in North Carolina, and this is good news. A reduction was anticipated with increased implementation of effective physical distancing. Yet, the magnitude of the reduction appears even more pronounced than anticipated in early April," the researchers wrote.

In an early April report the models showed that if North Carolina were to reopen completely at the end of the month the number of cases would likely reach 750,000 by June 1. Researchers also predicted a 50 percent chance the state's hospitals would be overwhelmed.

However, that outlook showed that if North Carolina were to take a phased approach to reopening, the state may only see up to 250,000 cases, including unreported cases.

Current trends show the situation in North Carolina is better than was predicted earlier, with about 9,948 laboratory-confirmed cases reported as of April 29.

The research added, though, that the increased number of cases reported every day and the increase of COVID-19-related deaths is a sign that the disease is still spreading in North Carolina.

"As we have not yet achieved sustained decreases in reported cases or deaths, we must remain vigilant and continue containment efforts," the researchers wrote.

The state is making plans for a phased reopening and researchers say that means more people will come into contact with one another, increasing the rate of transmission.

The researchers also looked at the state's current hospital capacity and estimated that 2.2 percent of all cases would need to be hospitalized, with 30 percent of those patients needing ICU care.

In the first scenario, in which most would continue social distancing and viral spread would be lower, the researchers estimated between 75,000 and 150,000 coronavirus infections by the end of May, including both reported and unreported cases. In this scenario, North Carolina hospitals are not likely to become overwhelmed by the end of May and the number of severely ill patients would not likely exceed the number of available ICU beds in the state.

The second scenario, with a moderate amount of viral spread, could lead to 330,000 infections by May 31, with a range of 185,000 to 596,000; while hospitals might not become overwhelmed, models show there is a strong possibility the state could reach or surpass the number of available ICU beds.

While saying the third scenario isn’t likely to come to pass because the spread has slowed, that "high transmission" model shows that 720,000 more people could become infected than in the moderate model, potentially leading to more than a million cases by the end of May and hospitals and ICUs would quickly become overwhelmed.

Researchers couldn't say which of the three scenarios was the most likely but did support the planned phased reopening of the state, which they said could lead to a less dramatic increase in transmission.

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