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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

Mecklenburg Commissioners Want More Details On COVID-19 Models

Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation model
Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation
The most recent model from the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates North Carolina's peak Friday.

For the first time during the COVID-19 pandemic some Mecklenburg County commissioners have raised concerns about the county’s modeling and direction.

Their concerns came after the county issued a grim projection about the state of the pandemic – and then the hospitals suggested hours later the crisis wasn’t as dire.

To recap:

On Tuesday, Mecklenburg County Public Health Director Gibbie Harris said a new model shows Mecklenburg County’s COVID-19 peak will be June 8. During that period, she said hospitals will be overwhelmed and won’t have enough ventilators and ICU beds.

But during that same news conference, county manager Dena Diorio said it’s not “realistic” for the county to continue its stay-at-home order that long.

Then, a day later, Novant and Atrium sent Diorio a letter saying they don’t anticipate needing a 600-bed field hospital, which Diorio was planning to build in the Charlotte Convention Center.

“Who is doing these models?” Commissioner Mark Jerrell told WFAE this week. “Is it emergency operations? Is it the county? Is it the hospitals?”

Commissioner Trevor Fuller has the same concerns.

“Who is doing the calculating?” he said. “I don’t have any real visibility in that.”

Credit Mecklenburg County Commissioners
Susan Harden

Commissioner Susan Harden said her biggest concern is that Diorio said a stay-at-home order through June isn’t realistic. She said restrictions might need to be extended to fight the spread.

“Who knows what’s reality anymore?” she said.

Experts have said forecasting the COVID-19 pandemic has been extremely difficult because this strain of the coronavirus has never been spread through humans before.

Harris has repeatedly said that projecting the spread of COVID-19 is like forecasting a hurricane and will constantly change.
A model from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation has changed its projections dramatically over the last month. The model currently predicts that Friday, April 17 is North Carolina’s peak day in terms of demand on hospitals.

The county said it believed that model was too optimistic, and it chose a model from the University of Pennsylvania.
That model is available online, and anyone can add their own inputs. Harris, the health director, told WFAE this week that the data for the model came from the hospitals and the county. WFAE has asked for the specific data, but the county has not provided it.

Charlotte Republican Congressman Dan Bishop tweeted this week that the county and the hospitals should release all the information that went into their model.


But some of the data the county has made visible raises questions about the overall model.
For instance, the county showed a slide that projected the total number of Mecklenburg County cases would rise to roughly 2,100 by April 25.
When Harris made that presentation on April 14, the county’s caseload was just under 1,000.
There has been a spike in new cases on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and there are now 1,136 known infections in Mecklenburg, according to the state.
But Mecklenburg would need to add between 90 and 100 new cases a day in the next week to reach the 2,100 projected cases. The county has never added that many cases a day.
If the projection of 2,100 cases by April 25 is too high, does that impact the June 8 peak forecast as well?
In their letter to Diorio saying they don’t need a field hospital, Atrium and Novant said the field hospital isn’t needed at this time because the curve has flattened.
“Instead of positive cases doubling every 2.85 days, as they were previously, the current trajectory is showing positive cases now doubling every 6 days,” Atrium CEO Gene Woods and Novant CEO Carl Armato wrote.
But Mecklenburg is not doubling its number of cases every six days right now. The county’s growth rate for the past 10 days suggests cases will double every 12 or 14 days.
In a news conference with reporters this week, Harris said there are far more asymptomatic infections than known infections, a commonly held belief. But Harris said the estimates are that between 25-60% of the population has been infected with the novel coronavirus.
 A study in the New England Journal of Medicine of pregnant women in New York found that nearly 14% tested positive for COVID-19 and were asymptomatic. Another 2% tested positive and had symptoms.
Harris said the 25-60% estimate was “all over the map” and not a good projection. But she stressed that asymptomatic people can infect others.
Mecklenburg County Commissioner Elaine Powell said that she and her colleagues were “surprised” by the June 8 peak projection and that it took them a while to process the grim news.
"We are the 'hot spot' in the state of North Carolina,” she said. “We need to be very proactive about minimizing the impact of our health care system, but we need to be mindful of how devastating this is to small businesses and families."
She added: “I have full faith in our emergency operations team.”

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.