SOUTHEASTERN PENNSYLVANIA — If moderate social distancing measures are enforced, the five-county region of southeastern Pennsylvania could see 2.8 million cases of coronavirus by mid-June, an analysis shows. However, if the most severe control measures are maintained, it's that number could be limited to 99,000, with a peak in the late summer.
That's the conclusion of Columbia University researchers as reported by the New York Times, which compiled maps showing the estimated spread of the virus in every county in America under varying scenarios for control measures.
Under the best-case scenario, including maintaining the strict imposition of measures like closing schools and businesses, banning mass gatherings, staying at home whenever possible, and testing and quarantining sick people and their contacts, the peak of infection could be pushed past July 31, with as few as 99,ooo cases — between two and three percent of southeastern Pennsylvania's population.
Here's how this projected best case scenario would look at the county level:
- Bucks: 16,000 cases, 3 percent infected
- Chester: 13,000 cases, 3 percent infected
- Delaware: 14,000 cases, 3 percent infected
- Montgomery: 21,000 cases, 3 percent infected
- Philadelphia: 35,000 cases, 2 percent infected
A few caveats are important to note here: the projections are based on numbers from March 13, so they could vacillate in either direction based on the cases discovered since then. They are rough estimates, analysts note, which are "inherently uncertain." So this should not be taken as more than a best guess.
But perhaps most importantly, those numbers represent a best case scenario.
Under the study's middle ground scenario, where moderate, but not strict control measures are maintained, all of southeastern Pennsylvania would peak much sooner, closer to mid-June, if not earlier.
The moderate scenario has the peak number at an estimated 2.8 million cases, with the following county breakdown:
- Bucks: 420,000 cases, 67 percent infected
- Chester: 340,000 cases, 69 percent infected
- Delaware: 380,000 cases, 68 percent infected
- Montgomery: 560,000 cases, 70 percent infected
- Philadelphia: 1,100,000 cases, 69 percent infected
It paints yet another stark portrait of a potential future if social distancing is not maintained.
"The best way we can preserve our economic future is by minimizing the spread of COVID-19 right now," Gov. Tom Wolf said in announcement Wednesday. "Just as any one of us can get COVID-19, any one of us can spread it. And that means we must all act as if we have it."
But social distancing in the U.S. isn't as easy as telling everyone to stay home, said Mary Travis Bassett, director of the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University.
"The United States has particular vulnerabilities that make it possible that we'll have the worse coronavirus epidemic of all," Bassett said, citing the country's health, economic and social inequalities.
"These inequalities... mean that we are both more susceptible and more likely to have people who are not going to follow the public health advice of social distancing, hand-washing and seeking prompt medical care because they risk their livelihood," Bassett said.
She added that many low-wage workers in the health care sector can't afford to miss a day of pay or take a sick day.
"The infusion of financial support to people who are no longer working is absolutely critical," Bassett said, "People are not going to stay home and not feed their families."
Pennsylvania residents will benefit from a $2 trillion federal aid package that was passed by the U.S. Senate unanimously on Wednesday.
Stay at home orders are now in place across Pennsylvania, and enforcement began on the closures of all non-life-essential businesses, as officials scramble to contain the virus. How long this quarantine stage will last, however, remains unknown. Schools are closed through at least April 6, though that date feels likely to be significantly pushed back based on the estimates of when the virus will peak in the area.
A total of 1,687 people in Pennsylvania had tested positive for coronavirus as of Thursday afternoon, and 16 are dead.