Terry Stone, a Dallas-based managing partner for international consulting firm Oliver Wyman, drove from Dallas to Nantucket, Massachusetts, earlier this month. The closer she got to the East Coast cities ravaged by the coronavirus, the more people she saw wearing masks.

Stone, who advises companies how to safely reopen during a pandemic that’s killed more than 120,000 people in the United States, thinks Texas’ early success in flattening the curve now means fewer people are taking the virus seriously here than in harder-hit areas.

“You had a whole bunch of people saying back in mid-March, ‘Oh this is no big deal, everyone’s blowing it out of proportion,’” Stone told the Rivard Report in a Friday interview. “What we did do is manage to suppress the curve, to flatten it. But one of the problems is that by doing it, people who already thought it wasn’t that big a deal are saying, ‘Look, I told you so.’”

Her firm’s predictions are among those that show how bad things could get if people don’t heed public health warnings.

Stone’s firm is one of dozens of teams modeling the future of coronavirus in the U.S., where Texas is among the states experiencing its steepest-ever incline in the number of new coronavirus cases per day. The state has more than 35,000 active cases, or people who are still ill, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS).

By early July, that number could rise from more than 54,000 to more than 120,000, depending on residents’ mobility and how quickly the state continues to ramp up testing, according to the Oliver Wyman model.

The range of forecasts for how the disease could spread in Texas is wide. One University of Massachusetts-Amherst project involved compiling more than 30 projections into what they call an “ensemble model,” which represents a range of predictions by different modeling teams from around the world.

For Texas, all models show cumulative deaths continuing to rise substantially, though they vary on the slope of the curve. The state’s death toll could mount from 2,165 on Saturday to somewhere between 2,500 and upward of 4,000 by mid-July.

A range of predictions for total coronavirus deaths in Texas compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A range of predictions for total coronavirus deaths in Texas compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Credit: Courtesy / CDC

Few models make these predictions on a local level. A model that does is the work of a team led by Juan Gutierrez, an infectious disease epidemiologist who chairs the University of Texas at San Antonio’s mathematics department.

In late April, Gutierrez’s model predicted that San Antonio could see 1,100 active cases by early June under a middle-risk scenario, halfway between shutdown and business as usual. If life had immediately gone back to normal, San Antonio could have seen hundreds of thousands of active cases by late May, Gutierrez predicted at the time.

Right now, San Antonio’s place on the curve lies somewhere between Gutierrez’s middle- and high-risk projections. San Antonio has its highest-ever number of active cases, at 3,725 as of Saturday.

San Antonio could see cumulative cases could rise to more than 10,000 by August, according to Gutierrez’s most recent model run.

In an interview Monday, Gutierrez described the difficulties in modeling a brand-new disease, including accounting for those who don’t show symptoms and the difficulty health departments face when they compile case data from dozens of labs.

One thing’s for sure, Gutierrez said: San Antonio is still in the midst of its initial rise in cases.

“We’re not in a second wave,” Gutierrez said. “We have not left the first wave behind.”

Perhaps the most important numbers are those that show whether the medical system is prepared to handle an influx of patients. This week, local officials began to sound the alarm about shortages that will be on the horizon if the trend continues.

Eric Epley, director of the South Texas Regional Advisory Council, said at a Thursday briefing that San Antonio has “good capacity” in its hospitals, but that won’t remain true if the curve keeps rising. Only a week earlier, the number of patients hospitalized in Bexar County for coronavirus numbered in the 90s, he said.

As of Saturday, San Antonio had 336 people hospitalized for coronavirus, with 111 in intensive care and 49 on ventilators. Epley cited concerns over having enough medical personnel to staff the rising number of patients, even if they have enough beds.

“Right now, we’re doing OK, we’re treading water,” Epley said. “But we’ve got to stop the trend.”

At the briefing, Epley urged residents to follow health guidelines.

“People ask a lot of the time, how can I help?” he said. “It’s pretty simple. Use your mask. Wear it all the time. Stay at home … social distance, and wash your hands. That’s the hero move for everyone in this city.”

State officials are making the same request, arguing that these measures are the only way to have an open economy while stopping the virus from overwhelming the medical system, as it did in places like New York, Italy, and Spain. DSHS Commissioner Dr. John Hellerstedt sent the message at a Monday press briefing.

“The way to do both of these things is to maintain and practice great discipline in the sort of preventative personal measures we talk about – masking, hand-washing, sanitizing,” Hellerstedt said.

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.