Study: Several High Plains Counties At High Risk For COVID-19 Outbreak

Apr 7, 2020

Several counties in the High Plains region are at high risk for a coronavirus outbreak, according to a new study from the University of Texas at Austin. The study is being used to provide evidence for policymakers undecided about whether to enact social distancing measures.

The study says, in part, "Early and extensive social distancing can block community transmission, avert rises in hospitalizations that overwhelm local capacity, and save lives.”

The study looked at the probability of current COVID-19 outbreaks in all U.S. counties and found that even counties currently reporting only one case, have over a 50 percent chance of an outbreak. Counties with more than one case are at risk for an even higher probability of an outbreak. 

The study’s summary reads, in part, “Given the low testing rates throughout the country, we assume that one in ten cases are tested and reported. If a county has detected only one case of COVID-19, there is a 51% chance that there is already a growing outbreak underway .... Proactive social distancing, even before two cases are confirmed, is prudent.”

High Plains counties with the greatest risk for an outbreak (based on cases reported as of April 2) are as follows:

Western Kansas:

  • Finney County: 79 percent probability
  • Gove, Stevens, Morton, Pratt and Stafford Counties: 51 percent probability.

Texas Panhandle:

  • Potter County: 98 percent probability
  • Randall County: 98 percent probability
  • Castro County: 93 percent probability
  • Moore County: 89 percent probability
  • Oldham and Deaf Smith Counties: 70 percent probability
  • Swisher, Donley and Gray Counties: 51 percent probability

Eastern Colorado:

  • Baca County: 93 percent probability
  • Kit Carson County: 84 percent probability
  • Logan County: 91 percent probability
  • Otero County, 79 percent probability
  • Phillips, Yuma County: 70 percent probability
  • Washington, Lincoln, Crowley Counties: 51 percent probability
  • Cheyenne, Kiowa, Prowers, Bent, Las Animas, Sedgwick Counties: 9 percent probability

Oklahoma Panhandle:

  • Texas County: 51 percent probability
  • Cimarron, Beaver, Harper Counties: 9 percent probability

SW Nebraska

  • Dundy, Hitchcock, Red Willow, Furnas, Harlan, Franklin Counties: 9 percent probability

Several counties listed above have reported increasing numbers of cases since April 2, which according to the study means the probability of an outbreak in those counties has also gone up (see the chart below).

The study also says that the “risk estimates provide evidence for policymakers who are still weighting if, when and how aggressively to enact social distancing measures,” and that the COVID-19 spread in any given county “very much hinges on the speed of local interventions. Early and extensive social distancing can block community transmission, avert rises in hospitalizations that overwhelm local capacity, and save lives.”

A COVID-19 outbreak is defined as follows: six outbreaks that reach 500 cases and reach a minimum prevalence of 10 cases in a given day.

COVID-19 is largely spreading undetected because of high numbers of asymptomatic and mild infections, as well as limited testing capacity, the study says.

The research is based on a tool used in estimating the risk of the spread of Zika virus. The study says the risk estimates presented “provide evidence for policymakers who are still weighting if, when and how aggressively to enact social distancing measures.”