© 2023 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

New COVID-19 Projections Suggest A Brighter Outlook For Kansas And Missouri But Experts Urge Caution

Alex Smith
Kansas City, Missouri, health department director Dr. Rex Archer (left) joined Mayor Quinton Lucas at a press conference on COVID-19 in March.

After weeks of anxiety and terrifying headlines about COVID-19, newly updated projections seem to offer signs of hope.

A tool created by researchers at the University of Washington shows that the short-term impact of the disease may be less than that of the seasonal flu. However, experts warn about reading too much into the projections.

“It’s partial good news that some of the steps that we’re taking are starting to have an impact,” says Dr. Rex Archer, director of the Kansas City, Missouri, health department. “But I think, in general, it’s over-estimating the current compliance with the various stay-at-home ordinances and codes.”

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation tool, which is updated regularly based on new data, currently estimates that COVID-19 cases will peak in Kansas on April 19, causing 265 deaths by August 4; statewide, according to the model, demand for hospital facilities will not exceed the supply.

In Missouri, the tool also estimates an April 19 peak with 352 deaths by August and no shortage of beds.

If those estimates prove correct, the states would appear to be scarcely touched by a pandemic that other research has shown may lead to dramatic shortages in hospital beds, intensive care facilities and ventilators, forcing health care providers to ration care.

The modeling assumes that social distancing will be strictly observed, but Archer says he’s skeptical that is happening based on data from cell phones that show Missouri lagging other parts of the country in people staying home.

He also worries that Missouri’s new stay-at-home order isn’t strict enough to maintain social distancing.

Additionally, the model only projects COVID-19 spread through August, while most experts believe the virus may reemerge several times after initially peaking this spring.

“We’re not talking about the second wave,” Archer says. “When school starts up again in August, a lot of us are predicting that we’ll be back into this same situation by late September or early October.”

The University of Washington model has been influential, but it’s one of the more optimistic.

Health researchers told commissioners in Johnson County, Kansas, on Monday that some of their worse-case scenarios suggests that COVID-19 surges may require 25% to 35% percent more hospital beds than are currently available by the end of April.

Boston University epidemiologist Elaine Nsoesie says the updated University of Washington model is encouraging, and she expects that other models may also start to show rosier estimates of COVID-19’s effects as they incorporate more recent data about how the virus has spread in the communities in the U.S.

However, Nsoesie says, the new projections should be viewed as public health tools, rather than a barometer of the virus for the general public.

“The University of Washington model is (designed for) planning,” Nsoesie says. “The predictions are being made so that resources can be allocated where they need to be allocated.”

She warns that the model does not suggest that social distancing and other measures have already accomplished their goals.

“It’s very important that we do not relax because of what models are predicting,” Nsoesie says. “It’s still important to continue social distancing, to make sure that we do not have a significant uptick in cases all of a sudden because we’re not doing what we’re supposed to be doing.”

Even in the most optimistic scenario, Archer points out, both Kansas and Missouri are still two weeks from their COVID-19 peaks, and he worries about new cases and hot spots that are still appearing in Kansas and Missouri on a daily basis.

“We need to keep following this up,” Archer says. “This is continuing to grow right now. People need to protect themselves and not spread this disease.”

Alex Smith is a health care reporter for KCUR 89.3 FM. You can reach him at alexs@kcur.org.

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and powerful storytelling.
Your donation helps make nonprofit journalism available for everyone.