TAMU-CC Researchers Encourage Vigilance in Fight Against COVID-19 Across Coastal Bend

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – While new COVID-19 cases did not see dramatic increases over the past week across the Coastal Bend, researchers at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi are encouraging everyone to use caution and maintain social distancing practices.

Outbreaks earlier this month at a meat-packing plant and halfway house drove big increases in Nueces County. The past week has seen a slower growth rate although outside of the outbreaks the epidemic is still growing in South Texas.

“Last week our concern was whether this outbreak was an indicator of things to come but it’s looking like the outbreak was a large blip on our radar,” said Dr. Chris Bird, Associate Professor of Biology at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. While the growth rate has returned to more “normal” levels this week, the brief outbreak had a big impact on the level of COVID-19 in the Coastal Bend.

“Things can change really quickly if we’re not vigilant,” Bird said.

Bird said it is critically important to identify and contain localized outbreaks, and business owners and other leaders need to carefully scrutinize their social distancing policies.

“If you don’t find the loopholes in your social distancing policy, COVID will,” Bird said.

Bird and others on the research team, part of a joint task force, gave an update on the COVID-19 situation at a regular weekly presentation today to Corpus Christi City and Nueces County leaders.

The presentation noted the acceleration of cases that continues this week has resulted in the Coastal Bend continuing to gain in the total number of cases per capita when compared to Bexar County. Two weeks ago, Bexar County had three times as many cases per capita as the Coastal Bend. That number has now dropped to a little more than two times as many cases per capita as the Coastal Bend.

Bird fine-tuned calculations of the transmission rate for the virus, comparing the level of transmission if no interventions were in place – estimated at 2.8 people infected per carrier – to the transmission rate under current interventions – estimated at 1.3 to 1.6 people infected per carrier.

Researchers also refined their weekly look at cell phone data, especially related to schools and hotels. The data closely followed the drop off in school activity when spring break was extended and stay-at-home orders took place, as well as hotel-related data that showed how cell phone encounters peaked during spring break, dropped during the stay-at-home period, and started climbing after Easter. Increases in hotel stays reflect favorably on getting the economy back on track but also create some concern about the possibility more visitors could result in a higher rate of infection.

Bird was impressed with how accurately the cell phone data mirrored what was being observed in the community. The data, which cannot be traced back to individual users, illustrates the daily number of human-human contacts outside of the home.

The team’s presentations and findings can be seen on a special dashboard: https://www.conradblucherinstitute.org/covid19.