The latest projection from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Modeling and Evaluation says the coronavirus pandemic will claim nearly 135,000 lives in the U.S. by August, in part because many states are easing their social distancing restrictions.
Other projections also foresee a deadlier spring: A presentation purportedly prepared for the Trump administration and leaked to The New York Times and The Washington Post projects that there’ll be as many as 3,000 deaths per day in the U.S. by June 1, with a sharp increase coming around May 14. That’s significantly higher than the current pace of roughly 1,500 daily deaths, and close to the previous peak rate reported in mid-April.
The White House and the Centers for Disease Control disavowed the slide presentation, which carried the CDC’s logo. The Post quoted one of the researchers providing the data for the presentation, Justin Lasser of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, as saying that the modeling work was not complete and that the projection was only one of a range of forecasts.
The Institute for Health Modeling and Evaluation’s projections have been closely watched by the White House and other policymakers — in part because they’ve provided specific albeit variable estimates of total deaths. But the IHME’s projections also have come in for significant criticism from other quarters — in part because the models are based on tracking the course of the pandemic in various regions of the world, rather than the epidemiological characteristics of the virus.
In the past, the IHME models assumed a relatively symmetric rise and fall of infection and death, but the models released today reflect a far more extended “tail” to the course of infection.
Today, the researchers acknowledged that their previous modeling wasn’t sophisticated enough. “It is increasingly clear that COVID-19 epidemic trajectories — and corresponding responses — are highly variable throughout the world,” they wrote in an online update.
They said the revised projections reflect rising mobility in most U.S. states, as well as the easing of social distancing measures expected in 31 states by May 11. Increased social interactions will promote transmission of the virus.
WATCH: IMHE model predicts major increase in coronavirus deaths due to "trends in mobility" #MTPDaily
— Meet the Press (@MeetThePress) May 4, 2020
Measures to increase testing for the virus, and conducting contact tracing to identify those who might have been infected even if they’re not experiencing symptoms, won’t offset the effects of increased mobility, the researchers said.
“In each state, the evolution of the epidemic depends on the balance between relaxed social distancing, increasing temperature and rising rates of testing and contact tracing,” IHME Director Christopher Murray said in a news release. “We expect that the epidemic in many states will now extend through the summer.”
As usual, the projections come with an uncertainty interval weighted for 95% confidence. Today’s uncertainty interval is 95,092 to 242,890 U.S. deaths by Aug. 4. Even the lower end of that range is significantly higher than IHME’s previous projection of 72,433 deaths during the same time frame, issued just a few days ago. For the record, today Johns Hopkins University is reporting a cumulative U.S. death count in excess of 68,000.
Murray emphasized that the new hybrid model will be tweaked as the pandemic continues.
Coronavirus Live Updates: The latest COVID-19 developments in Seattle and the world of tech
“The model will allow for regular updating as new data are released on cases, hospitalizations, deaths, testing and mobility,” he said. “It can also be used to identify what may be the trajectory to progressively relax social distancing while still limiting the risk of large-scale resurgence.”
Murray said it’s not yet clear what effect warmer temperatures will have on transmission of the disease. If SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has a flu-like seasonal variability, there could be fewer cases than projected as summer approaches.
“At the moment, we believe that the effects of temperature on transmission are important, yet minimal,” Murray said. “As we move into summer and temperatures rise, we will learn more and will revise our projections if it is statistically relevant.”
Washington state’s death toll is projected to rise from the cumulative figure of 834 reported over the weekend to 1,159 by Aug. 4. Just a week ago, IHME’s projection for the state’s death toll through Aug. 4 was 877.
Last week, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee gave the go-ahead for resuming some recreational outdoor activities and reopening some previously closed businesses, as part of a four-phase process of relaxing restrictions that’s likely to run at least through May 31.
IHME’s model is no longer projecting dates when social distancing restrictions should be lifted. Instead, it’s building assumptions about social distancing policies into the state-by-state projections.
Regardless of the policies in force, individuals can lower the risk of transmission by wearing face coverings, staying 6 feet away from others, avoiding large gatherings, washing their hands frequently and minimizing face-touching.
Update for 12:15 p.m. PT May 11: IHME has updated its estimates to project 137,184 cumulative U.S. deaths from COVID-19 by August. That’s almost 3,000 deaths higher than the May 4 projection. Meanwhile, another widely watched outlook from independent data scientist Youyang Gu at COVID19-projections.com anticipates 188,190 U.S. deaths due to COVID-19 by Aug. 4.
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