PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island’s COVID-19 modeling shows cases peaking the second week of January, followed by steady, significant declines, according to the Department of Health.
In the mid-range estimate, cases would peak at about 6,500 cases a day, with hospitalizations peaking about a week after. Because Omicron is highly transmissible and because so many Rhode Islanders are vaccinated, hospitalizations will be proportionally lower.
“Of course, these are just point in time projections, which can (and often do) shift by the day,” Department of Health spokesman Joseph Wendelken said in an email.
The three-day average for new cases in Rhode Island right now is 5,713, a sum that is several times last winter’s peak. Wednesday had about 6,300 new COVID cases, near the state’s mid-range model with about a week to spare. There were 445 people in the hospital as of Wednesday, shy of the peak of 500 from last winter. That’s proportionally much lower per case, but severely straining a short-staffed health care system.
The state uses models to follow the pandemic frequently, but has less often shared those models publicly. That’s because without the proper context, they can be misunderstood, Wendelken noted.
They have sometimes been way off, such as when Governor Gina Raimondo publicly released models showing that 2,000 to 4,000 COVID-19 hospital beds could be needed at one time in 2020. It’s never surpassed 500.
But they’ve sometimes been on target. That was the case in mid-December, when the state’s internal pandemic modeling predicted staggering case totals in early January, surpassing last winter’s peak multiple times over.
That is pretty much exactly what Rhode Island is getting: The models showed cases soaring to 4,500 around Jan. 4. On Jan. 4, the actual three-day average for new cases in Rhode Island was 4,478.
Modeling is, to be sure, an inexact science. And while the models on Dec. 14 — presented in a confidential internal “State of the Spread” report obtained by The Boston Globe — got the big picture right, they got some things wrong, too. Hospitalizations and deaths aren’t as high as they presented. The models also predicted the wave would be abating by now. That has not happened: Cases continue to rise. Proportionally, hospitalizations and deaths are significantly lower than they were in last winter’s pre-vaccine wave, although by raw numbers hospitalizations are approaching last winter’s high-water mark.
Omicron presents its own predicting challenges, too, as scientists learn more about it. It’s even more infectious than previous variants, but it seems to be milder. That makes it harder to account for things like hospitalizations and deaths, especially when so many people are vaccinated.
If the models aren’t crystal balls, they still help policymakers figure out where the pandemic is headed. On Dec. 14, the models showed it was headed upwards, startlingly fast.
The models are put together by John Fulton, a Brown University clinical associate professor.
The confidential “State of the Spread” report is authored by state health officials and advisers on a regular basis and shared internally with top state officials. It is accompanied by a briefing call where those officials can ask questions and tease out the particulars.
The date of the report — Dec. 14 — is significant in its own right. Around that time, Governor Dan McKee’s administration was considering what steps it would take to address the rise in cases, and the potential rise into the future. The next day, a Wednesday, McKee announced an indoor mask mandate, starting the following Monday. He also said he was asking FEMA for emergency staffing for local hospital systems.
“Now is the time to act,” McKee said at a news conference in the State House, pointing to pressure on the hospital system. “It’s not a time to just sit and wait.”
McKee also said the state did not know what was around the corner, and could only react to what it was dealing with right now.
Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, the director of the state Department of Health, noted that the state’s economy was open as it was dealing with a fast-spreading new variant, at a time when more people were moving indoors.
“We are going to see case rates, hospitalizations and hopefully as few as possible fatalities, that will continue to remain elevated into 2022,” Alexander-Scott said.
Answering questions about the Dec. 14 models, Wendelken said data has been at the center of the state’s approach.
“In response to the increases in case counts that the models had been forecasting, the Governor put in place a requirement for people to either be masked or vaccinated for indoor, public settings (depending on the capacity of the site),” Wendelken said. “This was one of the most aggressive responses in the region.”
Wendelken also noted efforts to promote booster shots and address staffing challenges in hospitals.