Relaxing social distancing could result in the state seeing up to 750,000 cases of coronavirus by June 1, significantly increasing the risk of hospitals running out of ICU beds, according to a new model from a collaboration by North Carolina scientists.

This prediction is considerably grimmer than the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation model, which on Monday shifted its forecast toward a more optimistic outlook, downgraded its projected death count from more than 2,400 to 496.

Scientists from UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke University, and RTI International pulled together three different models to form their projections. Those models looked to see how many cases the state could have by June should social-distancing policies be relaxed after April, and whether the volume of those cases could outstrip the capacity of state’s health care system. 

“The modeling affirms that the actions we take now will determine how this virus will impact North Carolina in the weeks and months to come,” Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said Monday. “We need to continue to do everything in our power so that fewer people get sick at the same time, while also surging the capacity of our health care system so those that do need hospital care will have it. Please stay home now to save lives.”

In short, if we continue social distancing past April, we have a better chance of avoiding a surge in cases and overwhelming hospitals.

According to the state’s model, if social distancing policies are lifted at the end of April—which is when the state’s and local stay-at-home orders expire—about 750,000 North Carolinians could become infected by the virus by June 1. That would lead to a 50 percent probability that the state’s hospital system will run out of ICU beds.

The model did not predict how many might die as a result.

Alternatively, if social distancing is maintained through June, the researchers say, 250,000 people in the state will likely contract coronavirus by June, with a surge in cases occurring sometime in mid-to-late May.

Even in that scenario, there’s still a 25 percent chance that hospital systems exceed capacity and run out of beds. 

In terms of the peak, “the timing is less important than the intensity,” said Dr. Pia MacDonald, senior director of epidemiology at RTI and a UNC-Chapel Hill adjunct. “What we need to do is make sure that peak doesn’t come fast and furious and really tall. What we know works to flatten the curve is social distancing.”

Modeling isn’t a crystal ball; it’s more like a weather forecast that we can influence, said Duke professor Dr. Aaron McKethan. While we can’t change a hurricane’s trajectory or how powerful it is, we can control the spread of the virus through public policy.

The researchers said they weren’t making any policy recommendations “or suggesting that current policies (e.g., statewide stay-at-home order) can or necessarily should remain in place indefinitely. Rather, in the weeks and months ahead, the key policy challenge North Carolina leaders face is how to implement a comprehensive strategy to effectively maintain lower levels of viral transmission in the months ahead.”

Here’s the brief the state released:

COVID-19, North Carolina Projection by Leigh Tauss on Scribd

Contact Raleigh news editor Leigh Tauss at 

DEAR READERS, WE NEED YOUR HELP NOW MORE THAN EVER. Support independent local journalism by joining the INDY Press Club today. Your contributions will keep our fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle, coronavirus be damned.