As New York state saw daily deaths fall to the lowest level in nearly three weeks, one model is projecting the state could begin to relax social distancing rules—with strict conditions—as soon as the first week of June.
Washington University’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), one of several leading models for coronavirus predictions used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and among the most optimistic when it comes to New York, said Friday that the state, as well as its neighbors Connecticut and New Jersey, could consider easing their current rules “as early as late May or early June.” Still, people can only look forward to a reopening only if—and it’s a big “if”—the state has adequate containment strategies, including strong testing and contact tracing, according to the IHME and other major virus modelers.
“Such necessary containment efforts include extensive testing, robust contact tracing and isolation of new cases, and maintaining restrictions on mass gatherings of people,” according to experts at the IHME.
The prospect of relaxing stay-at-home orders ahead of the summer comes as New York’s daily death toll continues to decline; 478 people died from the virus on Sunday, the lowest that figure’s been in nearly three weeks.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said people can view this as good news, but nobody knows how long and how quickly it will take for infection rates to decline.
“The projections are nice, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on them,” Cuomo said. “If you’re looking for the optimists’ view: It’s better than it was.”
As of Monday, a quarter of a million people had tested positive for the coronavirus in New York and 14,300 have died since the outbreak started last month.
The daily rate of infection is a key metric for loosening stay-at-home orders. The IHME said it needs to fall below one new case per 1 million people each day before such rules can relax. The IHME believes one infection per 1 million residents is a conservative estimate for how many cases a state can reasonably trace and contain to prevent a resurgence.
Many states will hit that infection rate milestone before New York, the epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S. There were more than 240 new reported cases per 1 million New Yorkers on Sunday, according to an analysis of state health department data.
Alaska, Hawaii and even nearby states like Vermont and New Hampshire may be able to ease social distancing in a few weeks if the proper testing and other containment measures remain in place, according to the IHME projections.
“Based on our initial estimates, the earliest that some states may be able to ease presently implemented distancing policies—conditional on strong containment measures—appears to be in early to mid-May,” the institute said in its latest report.
But even if the disease plummets close to zero new infections by June, large-scale gatherings will still present major risks, experts say. As a result, New York City has canceled all public events through the month of June, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Monday. That includes any concerts and festivals, as well as all public events during Pride Month, which culminates each year in a Pride Parade that attracts over two million people. This year would have been the march’s 50th anniversary.
“That march is such an important part of the life of this city, but this year, in particular, was going to be something that was a historic moment,” de Blasio lamented.
June is also the month of the high-spirited Puerto Rican Day Parade as well as an annual Salute to Israel Parade. De Blasio said the city was working with organizers to reschedule some of those events when “it’s the right time.”
After all, June could be optimistic even for mild changes to social distancing, as some models chart an even slower course in New York. At the moment, the IHME predicts the least severe outcome for the state of the five models the CDC relies on for its own forecasts.
Another top disease modeler, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, predicted New York will still have about 10 new cases of coronavirus per day at the end of May. And that’s the lab’s best case scenario. Meanwhile, the best case scenario charted by experts at Northeastern University in Boston indicated an infection rate of one per 1 million in New York could be even further off, though the online model only goes through the end of this month.
Like IHME, Columbia University’s model also shows New York state coming close to no new infections by the end of May. Great news, but potentially not enough to relax social distancing, said Dr. Andew Rundle, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University.
“As a nation, we really didn’t have a plan as the pandemic hit the U.S. and my fear is that if the transition from an emergency mitigation phase to an ongoing containment phase occurs with similar poor planning, we will see another massive surge in cases,” Rundle said.
Frontline health care workers need time to recover from the chaos of the outbreak before relaxing measures that could potentially trigger a resurgence, he said. People with chronic disease and other non-COVID conditions also need time to get medical care that many have likely put off out of fear of going to a hospital or doctor over the past month, potentially delaying the timeline of reopening further, Rundle added.
Most of all, Rundle agrees with the IHME in that the state needs ample testing and quarantine locations in order for containment to work.
“Decisions on relaxing social distancing,” Rundle said, “must also take into account our ability to test, trace contacts and set up quarantine.”
Dr. Jeffrey Shaman, a professor of environmental health sciences also involved in COVID modeling at Columbia, said it’s really too soon to tell whether transmission, testing and tracing will get to the levels needed to warrant any change to social distancing in June.
“Nobody has that crystal ball because the situation is so fluid. We don’t know what people are going to do,” said Shaman, adding that anything from face-mask enforcement to alt-right protests could alter the rate of infections over the next few weeks.
“That kind of prognostication is Nostradamus,” he said, referring to the 16th-century French astrologer.