TEXARKANA, Texas — For a political scientist trained in quantitative methodology, the current pandemic provides plenty of useful material to analyze, even more numbers rising daily.
Dr. Walter Casey, associate professor at Texas A&M University-Texarkana, has been making projections using coronavirus data, and he's been so successful that he's worked with the Texas Emergency Management Advisory Group at A&M to support the state of Texas, including the Texas Division of Emergency Management and the Department of State Health Services.
The numbers Casey's been running aren't promising for the Lone Star State's ability to manage COVID-19 now, with the serious potential for what he calls a disaster. Imagine 2% of the entire Texas population infected with the coronavirus and needing medical care.
"What we're looking at, Texas state wide, is the possibility of hitting 700,000 confirmed cases by late July," Casey said. He said a number above 300,000 is "a very real possibility in the next three to four weeks." That latter amount is more than 1% of the state's population.
"We should start seeing the deaths increase because of just the sheer volume and as we get better at reporting and investigating," Casey said. His modeling group is now looking more carefully at post-mortems, at least in bigger counties, to see if there are unreported COVID deaths.
He said Gov. Greg Abbott has taken a few steps this past week that could slow the growth in coronavirus numbers, such as closing bars, which sends a signal to people to stop being so "selfish," as Casey said. But he thinks the number in about a month won't be less than 300,000.
With people not wearing masks and the asymptomatic carriers, he and other colleagues also computed that we have a one-in-six chance of contracting COVID-19 in the Ark-La-Tex region — "if you are out and about without a mask," he said.
"It gets worse and worse the more contact you have and the more close contacts you have," Casey said, "Until it finally reaches something like two-out-of-three chance, which is just insanely high."
Learning more about this novel coronavirus opens up the door to more unknowns.
"In terms of viruses, we know a lot about this kind of virus, but we don't know enough about this particular one, although we learn more and more every day," Casey said.
Here's what we do seem to know, the professor said:
- Asymptomatic people can be as efficient in transmitting the virus as people who exhibit symptoms;
- It takes a fairly high viral load to show COVID-19 symptoms. "But at the same time asymptomatic people can have much higher viral loads and not show symptoms," Casey said;
- We probably can't get COVID-19 from simple surface contact with the things people have been cleaning and sanitizing. Casey put it this way: "It's kind of a wasted effort if you're not following it up with wearing a mask everywhere at all times." As he describes it, we can't hand sanitize the air;
- People are more likely to be infected indoors rather than outdoors, although the latter can happen. "It takes as little as five minutes of close contact with someone that is within, say, six feet, both of you just speaking," Casey said. That's the minimal threshold.
Originally, he focused his analyses on national numbers, but he expanded to focus more on Texas and then local numbers, such as Bowie County and then all counties within a 70-mile radius of Texarkana.
"I think numbers are cool. I was looking at the national numbers and it just struck me as something was odd in the reporting," Casey said.
He first consulted with A&M-Texarkana's resident virologist Dr. Ben Neuman back in March about what he saw, and then proceeded to immerse himself into learning more and more, even doing coursework for a master's degree in epidemiology.
Casey says the accuracy of his forecasting, even his long-range forecasting, is why he's on TEMAG. He said over time his forecasts have been within 1 to 2% of reality —not bad for working in Texarkana with Wi-Fi and a laptop.
"Go me," he said sarcastically, because it's a sad story about how the coronavirus is playing out.
"I think we can fully expect government in Texas to eventually move back to some quasi-stay-at-home order," Casey said. He thinks public schools should prepare to offer most of their classes fully online.
"We are preparing for that eventuality, but I think that's more of a certainty as the cases keep going up," Casey said about where he teaches, A&M-Texarkana.
He cautions that everything is on a two-week lag. "Whatever the governor did today it will take two weeks for us to see those effects," Casey said.
He's truly concerned about Texas and the surrounding 17 counties near Texarkana. He says that even if you exclude the Shreveport-Bossier municipal area, the case count is much higher than we'd think it is with 4,700 cases within 70 miles of Texarkana.
"We have 120-some-odd deaths, and that means the case fatality rate is 2.5," Casey said.
Moral of the story? Wear a mask and improve your chances of not contracting COVID-19.
"Wear your masks, just wear them. Just do it," Casey said. "We could do lots of business and lots of activities and even some small groups if we were all wearing masks religiously, the way we wear seatbelts or the way we wear pants."