Story at a glance

  • The study says more than 70 percent of all counties in the U.S. are likely to have coronavirus epidemics.
  • That makes up more than 90 percent of the U.S. population.
  • Even counties with one reported case have more than a 50 percent likelihood an epidemic is already occurring.

A new report from a team of disease modelers at the University of Texas at Austin claims the novel coronavirus is more widespread in the U.S. than the number of confirmed cases suggests. 

The modeling, first reported in The New York Times, claims 72 percent of the United States’ 3,142 counties likely have coronavirus outbreaks, even if they are unaware it’s taking place. That accounts for 94 percent of the nation’s population.


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To develop their estimates, researchers repurposed a tool previously used to analyze the Zika virus and applied the framework to calculate the risk of widespread, undetected community transmission of COVID-19 in each county in the U.S.

While more than 380,000 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in the U.S, researchers believe that the actual number is much larger due to a high percentage of asymptomatic and mild cases, as well as limited testing. The research claims there’s a 51 percent chance an outbreak is already underway in counties with even only one reported case.

“For counties that have not yet reported a confirmed case, the chance that there is an undetected outbreak underway is 9%,” the report states, but “a single detected case of COVID-19 increases that risk to 51%.”

The majority of states throughout the U.S. have now put stay-at-home orders in place to try to stop the spread as the country leads the world in confirmed cases, and the report suggests that waiting too long to do so cost lives, recommending that officials implement “proactive social distancing, even before two cases are confirmed.”


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“While low population density may help to delay the emergence and subsequent spread of the disease, COVID-19 has successfully spread in other rural regions of the US,” Emily Javan, one of the report's authors, told Business Insider. “Our estimates suggest that all regions should take immediate preventative measures to mitigate community spread.”

Some states in the U.S. have faced criticism for not issuing stay-at-home orders sooner. The federal government has issued guidance recommending citizens stay home and avoid gathering in groups of more than 10 people through the end of the month. 

“I worry that many local officials are waiting until there is clear evidence of local transmission before taking action...The message is we should not wait,” Lauren Ancel Meyers, a professor of biology and statistics at UT-Austin and an author of the report, told The New York Times. 


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Published on Apr 07, 2020