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Projections for Travis County show a surge in cases over the next several weeks. (PolicyLab)

Three weeks into Texas' reopening—and after warnings from local elected officials and health experts—updated modeling forecasts a local spike in COVID-19 cases in June.


The data, compiled by the PolicyLab at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, suggests Travis County will start to see an uptick in new COVID-19 infections and approach the previous record—125 new cases recorded April 3—by mid-June.

"I know people are suspicious of models because they're forecasts," PolicyLab Director Dr. David Rubin said. "But what I would say is where you see consistent signals, you need to take them seriously."

While there have been positive developments in the local COVID-19 caseload—including what Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott recently called an "effectively plateaued" curve—there is evidence those signals may get louder.

The data analytics firm Unacast, which uses cell phone tracking data to assess social distancing, now rates Travis County as failing, a four-letter grade drop since early April. Residents have reduced their daily mobility 25% to 40%—a D grade—and their nonessential visits by less than 55%—an F. Texas is doing even worse, with a less than 25% reduction in average mobility statewide.

"[T]he picture our models are painting for Texas and Florida provide ample evidence to others who would choose to move too quickly," Dr. Rubin and his colleagues wrote in a blog post published Wednesday. "We see these concerns even as we adjust for additional testing capacity that might have inflated our forecast."

But reopening can be done safely, so long as residents accept "inconveniences," such as wearing masks in public and adapting to new restaurant protocols, Dr. Rubin said. "Our message is not one of, 'Don't reopen,'" he added, pointing to states such as Colorado that have reopened cautiously—and are less at risk of a surge in the future.

Dr. Rubin hopes this updated report serves as a kind of "dimmer switch," spurring residents to change their behavior before they are forced to, such as by a second shutdown. "It's like a hurricane," he said. "What do you do? You board up your windows. You get ready. Maybe you get lucky, and it moves 50 miles to the west, and you don't see the impact. But you're still happy that you prepared."

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