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COVID-19 'can and does spread silently' says UT's Lauren Ancel Meyers as Austin sees daily cases spike again
(Marsha Miller)

Dr. Lauren Ancel Meyers, a professor of integrative biology and executive director of the COVID-19 Modeling Consortium at the University of Texas, presenting her work.

The coronavirus pandemic has taken a backseat to other unprecedented news events lately. But experts—from the National Institute of Health's Dr. Anthony Fauci to Austin's own Dr. Lauren Ancel Meyers—continue to warn against the dangers of the disease.


"What we're seeing is probably preliminary evidence that since relaxation [of local stay-home orders] the virus has started to spread more quickly in the community," Dr. Meyers told Austonia.

Five weeks after the state began its reopening plan, and in the wake of mass protests against police brutality, Travis County reported its largest ever daily increase in coronavirus cases on both Monday and Tuesday evenings. Yesterday, the state released updated data that showed COVID-related hospitalizations have increased 36% since Memorial Day.

"The more times people come in close contact without taking precautions, the more opportunities there are for transmissions," she said.

Still, some Austin residents may feel burnt out on the forecasts of a coming surge.

Dr. Meyers, a professor of integrative biology who leads the COVID-19 Modeling Consortium at the University of Texas at Austin, said her team's projections bear out the importance of precautionary measures in containing COVID's spread.

"Many people in the city haven't experienced firsthand the potentially devastating impacts of this virus," she said. "The reason it didn't hit most of us close to home was because of the stay home-work safe order; because we as individuals and we as communities took steps to prevent the rapid transmission of a pandemic. And the steps we're still taking today to minimize risk when we do go out in public are going a long way toward mitigating the risk in our communities."

Earlier this week, an expert at the World Health Organization said asymptomatic transmission of COVID is "very rare," leading to confusion and a clarification. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that as much as 35% of cases could be due to asymptomatic cases.

"It is very clear from the analyses we've done and other people have done that people are contagious before they have symptoms," Dr. Meyers said. "It's very important for your readership and for everybody to know that this is a virus that can and does spread silently."

This asymptomatic spread is one of the difficulties containing COVID, she added, and a reason for people to wear masks, which help limit spread by individuals who are infected but have no reason to know it.

These precautions remain necessary, especially since pandemics can rapidly overwhelm local healthcare systems. "Epidemics don't grow in a gradual way," Dr. Meyers said. "What happens is they look really flat and then suddenly they bend upwards and they become very alarming very quickly."

The consortium's team helped local health officials develop a five-stage alert system—with specific thresholds—in an attempt to avoid this scenario. "That's the reason for the staging, so that we can tap on the brakes and not have to slam on the brakes," Dr. Meyers said.

This approach also avoids ultimatums. "You don't want to err on the side of acting too early because then there may be unnecessary economic and societal costs," she added.

In the meantime, some precautions will remain critical until a vaccine or life-saving treatment is developed, especially as schools and universities navigate their reopenings.

"That said, as we learn more about the efficacy of face masks or we learn more about how this spreads and where this spreads, we may be able to do some of this in a more targeted fashion," Dr. Meyers said. "We are trying to explore options that are not completely drastic that still limit transmission."

Despite the terror of the pandemic, Dr. Meyers feels fortunate to be living in Austin and working at UT during it.

"We have very thoughtful leadership," she said. "There's no silver bullet, there's no right answer, but they're doing, I think, as good a job as possible in navigating this unprecedented situation and really thinking about the health and safety and economy wellbeing of our population."

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