(TNS) - South Florida residents fleeing the path of a powerful hurricane would almost certainly cause a spike in coronavirus infections across the state and beyond, according to a new study.
And decisions made during a hurricane evacuation could mean a difference of tens of thousands of new COVID-19 cases.
The study, conducted by scientists with the Union of Concerned Scientists and Columbia University, examines how four South Florida counties that are hotspots for coronavirus — Miami Dade, Palm Beach, Monroe and Broward — would influence the spread of COVID-19 should a Category 3 hurricane hit the area and force some residents to flee to safer regions.
With the rest of the 2020 hurricane season forecast to break records, the study sheds light on the daunting task of managing two major public emergencies at the same time.
Scientists ran simulations of possible evacuation routes to determine how the spread of coronavirus would be affected by the fleeing of 2.3 million people from a hurricane.
“In every scenario we analyzed, hurricane evacuations cause an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases,” said Kristy Dahl, a senior climate scientist at fof the Union of Concerned Scientists and a co-author of the report. “Minimizing that increase depends on getting people to destinations with low virus transmission rates and ensuring that those transmission rates stay low even when there’s an influx of evacuees.”
One simulation used the same routes evacuees took during 2018\u2032s Hurricane Irma, which made landfall in the Florida Keys. That would take many South Floridians to counties that lack the same strict public health measures imposed in South Florida. The result: 61,000 new COVID-19 cases, 20% more than if nobody evacuated.
In another simulation, evacuees from South Florida were directed to counties with stricter public health measures and lower COVID-19 transmission rates. That simulation predicted 9,100 more COVID-19 than the baseline — still a lot, but far fewer than the Hurricane Irma simulation.
Authors of the study, which is currently under peer review, said their findings are not meant to create a fear of evacuations, which are critical to get residents out of the way of catastrophic natural disasters. But they hope it will help emergency mangers create informed plans that can mitigate the impact of evacuations on COVID-19 transmissions.
Early this month, Hurricane Isais threatened South Florida as it approached the coast. While the state was spared a direct hit, the storm revealed the challenge local officials have when managing evacuations in the midst of a deadly pandemic.
Palm Beach County officials told its residents that that the safest option was to stay home or with family and friends. Shelters were considered to be the last resort, officials said. Shelters in Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Broward counties had temperature checks at the door, mask requirements and in some cases, limited capacity to promote social distancing.
Scientists acknowledged that the study cannot account for many of the decisions individuals will make during an evacuation, which would further influence the transmission rate of COVID-19.
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