MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – Last month, a research outfit in Philadelphia released a novel coronavirus forecast projecting a steep upward climb in Mobile County’s daily case count, hitting 366 a day by Wednesday.
It never happened.
While Mobile County’s daily caseload has increased since the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Policy Lab’s May 14 projection, infections never came anywhere near those apocalyptic levels.
Even a more modest, revised projection that the group later put out forecast more than twice as many new cases a day in Mobile County than has occurred. The actual number for Thursday, for instance, was 46 – not the 119 forecast.
Dr. David Rubin, the policy lab’s director, told FOX10 News that the discrepancy is not due to flaws in the model but changes made by Mobile County residents.
“One of the areas we’ve seen the biggest tightening this week has been in Mobile,” he said. “So, when I look at that projection, I can see why there was a much-increased projection this week. But we’re already seeing that tightening in terms of … your rolling average in social distancing.”
Had such a tremendous increase in infections come to pass, Mobile County’s hospitals almost surely would be feeling the pinch experienced by medical facilities in Montgomery, Tuscaloosa and elsewhere. This week, Alabama set a record for the most COVID-19 patients hospitalized on any single day.
A casual observer who witnesses crowded stores with large numbers of people without masks may question Mobile County’s commitment to “social distancing.” But Rubin said the data back it up. Since researchers have no way to measure mask-wearing, he said, the policy lab uses cell phone GPS data from Unicast as a proxy for social distancing.
That data show less movement in Mobile County, according to the latest report by the lab.
The lab, which produced its report in conjunction with the University of Pennsylvania, found Mobile County was a bright spot when it came to social distancing over the Memorial Day holiday. Researchers calculated the change in the number of “close proximity encounters” between two people during the holiday weekend compared with the previous week.
Mobile County had an “encounter rate” of 4.38. That was an 11.8 percent decline. By contrast, Florida’s Escambia County saw a 55 percent increase in its “encounter rate” over the Memorial Day weekend.
Rendi Murphree, director of the Mobile County Health Department’s Bureau of Disease Surveillance and Environmental Services, said at a briefing Thursday that she believes Mobile County residents have done a better job of following public health guidelines.
“We do believe that the social distancing, the restriction of movement, the restrictions on businesses – we believe those things have worked in Mobile County,” she said. “And we had a really tough start. We had lots of cases in the beginning when testing first became available.”
Murphree said she believes other parts of the state have had less compliance.
“The high numbers in other regions, I believe, are primarily due to, I guess, just an unwillingness for community members to do their part in maintaining social distancing and wearing a face covering,” she told reporters. “I have just heard anecdotally from people who live in some of the other areas of the state that they know that people are not taking it seriously. And it is showing up now in the very, very alarming numbers in cases that are being reported along the middle part of our state.”
Rubin said the model has proved much more accurate – “you’d be surprised how accurate they’ve been in most locations” – in counties where residents did not alter their daily travel patterns.
For a while, all we saw were people running to reopen. Well, you’re going in the other direction.
“To me, the areas that have gotten into trouble, where we’ve been deadly accurate, have been in places that people haven’t made those logical conclusions,” he said. “They’re just, you know, they’re shrugging their shoulders and they just, they're just plowing through.”
That has not been the case in Mobile, according to the data, he said.
“For a while, all we saw were people running to reopen,” he said. “Well, you’re going in the other direction. You’re tightening. And that’s exactly what you want to do. You don’t want it to be government shutting down. … You want it to be people calibrating your response.”
Rubin warned that Mobile County is not in the clear. The most recent projection sill forecasts a steep increase – although not coming nearly the 300-something daily increase that the think tank once foresaw for the county.
The model predicts 166 new coronavirus cases on July 15. That would represent more than a four-fold increase from Mobile County’s average over the past seven days.
“You look at the slope in the last week and a half, it’s been pretty steep, even though it’s coming from a low number,” Rubin said. “It just bears watching, and I think that people tightening their vigilance and doing just those little inflections that people do can actually have a huge impact in an area that’s not as densely populated.”
One hard-to-fathom prediction that did come true is that Mobile County by now would be seeing more new cases a day than Manhattan. On Tuesday of this week, that actually happened.