Whether students go back to school this fall remains in question around the country because of new COVID-19 projections.

These new projections released by PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) forecast a continued surge in COVID-19 cases over the next four weeks in many areas of the country, with renewed risk spreading into the Northeast and Midwest, threatening the ability to safely reopen schools and universities if strong mitigation policies are not instituted.

The new data show most hotspots, including communities across TexasFloridaTennesseeMississippi, and the Carolinas, have not increased their social distancing enough in the last week to reduce their risk for the continued resurgence in the coming weeks.

New Epicenters

New epicenters are forming in Louisiana and Georgia as cases surge in counties surrounding New Orleans and Atlanta, compromising the ability these cities have had thus far in staving off widespread transmission with vigilance in masking and distancing. COVID-19 case projections for many college towns, including Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Ann Arbor, Mich., are increasing in advance of the majority of students returning to campus. Yet, the researchers are most concerned about worsening forecasts in MarylandVirginia, and Washington, D.C—which have projections that look like those of North Carolina just a few weeks ago—and emerging risk for a resurgence in PhiladelphiaNewark, NJ, and New York City, ac They also observed the first signs of renewed risk for counties in Connecticut and Massachusetts as the epidemic spreads from the west and south, according to a news release

Notably, many areas the researchers are monitoring across Arizona and California, including Phoenix and Sacramento, saw an increase in social distancing over the past week, which led to slightly improved forecasts in the model. This trend illustrates just how effective an intervention distancing can be in reducing widespread transmission of COVID-19.

County Projections

The researchers also released new projections for 158 of our largest counties’ modeling scenarios that show how instituting universal masking and tightening social distancing and occupancy policies might affect our ability to neutralize the surging epidemic to get people back to work and children back to school in the fall. These new forecasts model scenarios reflecting guidance recently shared with state governments by the White House Coronavirus Task Force, for whom the scenarios were prepared.

However, even if an epicenter like Houston, for example, chose the most aggressive mitigation strategy of mandating mask-wearing, closing bars and gyms, limiting gathering sizes to 10 people, and reducing restaurant occupancy to 25%, they would reverse the trend of their epidemic, but could still see more than 650 cases daily in early August.

“A lot is riding on the decisions our policymakers and fellow citizens make this week if we still hope to safely return teachers and students to the classroom for the fall semester,” said David Rubin, MD, MSCE, director of PolicyLab at CHOP and a professor of Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine in the news release.

“Whether you live in a hotspot or a community that is just starting to see renewed signs of COVID-19 resurgence, now is the time to implement universal masking and assess how much you need to restrict gathering sizes and increase social distancing if we are to stop the sweep of this epidemic and get America back on track for achieving its goal of reopening schools and getting more people back to work.”

Researchers at PolicyLab at CHOP and the University of Pennsylvania developed the model, known as COVID-Lab: Mapping COVID-19 in Your Community, which tracks and projects COVID-19 transmission across 519 U.S. counties with active outbreaks, representing 71% of the U.S. population and 88% of all identified coronavirus cases. The researchers built their model to observe how social distancing, population density, daily temperatures, and humidity affect the number and spread of COVID-19 infections over time across a county, accounting for test positivity rates and population characteristics such as age, insurance status, crowding within homes and diabetes prevalence. COVID-Lab’s projections forecast the number of coronavirus cases communities could experience over the next four weeks based on a three-day average of their current social distancing practices, defined by the change in travel to non-essential businesses as compared to pre-epidemic.

Source: PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia