NC Gov. Roy Cooper (AP Photo/Gerry Broome) Roy Cooper
NC Gov. Roy Cooper (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Lifting social distancing policies at the end of April could have disastrous impacts for North Carolina, potentially tripling infections and doubling the risk of overloading hospitals, health leaders told reporters Monday.

“The more we practice social distancing, the more lives can be saved,” Pia D.M. MacDonald, a senior epidemiologist with RTI International, said. 

Top health officials from UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke, Blue Cross Blue Shield and RTI International spoke with reporters Monday after preparing a brief on the pandemic’s projected spread in North Carolina over several months. They used the composite of three models to make their determination, modeling the infection rate under current policies and under a hypothetical scenario in which all social distancing restrictions are lifted at the end of April.

Maintaining current policies, including Gov. Roy Cooper’s statewide stay-at-home order, would likely allow health officials to manage the pandemic. But relaxing those orders could place “substantial pressure on hospitals that could be outside of their capacity to manage,” said Mark Holmes, director of the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Service Research at UNC-Chapel Hill.

North Carolina’s number of confirmed COVID-19 cases ballooned to 2,870 in 89 of 100 counties as of Monday morning, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). The state reported 33 deaths and 270 currently hospitalized with the dangerous virus.

Even with social distancing policies, infections could reach 250,000 in North Carolina by the end of May, but with those policies lifted, that number could triple.

Still, under current policies, experts estimated a roughly 25% chance that hospitals and their intensive-care units are overloaded in mid- to late-May. Without those policies, the chance of overburdening the system increases to about 50%. 

“What changes these estimates is not actually the number of infected, but how aggressive we are in slowing transmission,” said MacDonald. “That’s what really impacts these models.”

Pia MacDonald, senior epidemiologist at RTI International

Government leaders at the state and federal level will likely be under intense pressure to reduce their restrictions to assuage a reeling economy, but Gov. Cooper’s administration emphasized Monday that the ever-changing COVID-19 data only bolster the case for strict social distancing.

“The modeling affirms that the actions we take now will determine how this virus will impact North Carolina in the weeks and months to come,” DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen said in a statement. “We need to continue to do everything in our power so that fewer people get sick at the same time, while also surging the capacity of our health care system so those that do need hospital care will have it. Please stay home now to save lives.”

“We have life-changing decisions before us and North Carolina is fortunate to have world-class experts who can help our state as we continue battling the coronavirus,” Gov. Cooper said in the statement. “Modeling is one tool that helps us prepare for this fight and it shows we will save lives if we stay home and keep our social distance right now.”

Officials added that simply increasing the healthcare system’s capacity will not be enough to meet the novel coronavirus’ spread without those restrictions as the virus peaks in the coming weeks.

“What we need to do to save lives in North Carolina is make sure that peak doesn’t come fast and furious,” said MacDonald.