Spotlight: Why U.S. models raise COVID-19 death projections

A healthcare worker hands out testing information to people waiting at a drive-through COVID-19 testing site on Northwest Side of Chicago, the United States, on May 6, 2020. (Photo by Joel Lerner/Xinhua)

by Xinhua writers Tan Jingjing, Xiong Maoling

Leading epidemiologists said as many states across the United States are lifting stay-at-home orders and reopening businesses, the failure to flatten the curve and drive down the infection rate in places could lead to many more COVID-19 deaths.

(Xinhua) — An influential COVID-19 model produced by the University of Washington has revised its projections earlier this week, estimating over 134,000 COVID-19 deaths in the United States through August.

Some other well-known COVID-19 models cited by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also raised death projections, such as the one produced by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which projected over 107,200 deaths by May 30.

Leading epidemiologists told Xinhua as many states across the United States are lifting stay-at-home orders and reopening businesses, the failure to flatten the curve and drive down the infection rate in places could lead to many more COVID-19 deaths.

Forecasts of deaths will help inform public health decision-making by projecting the likely impact in coming weeks, said the CDC.

The CDC has cited 13 COVID-19 death projection models on its websites, including those produced by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) of the University of Washington, Columbia University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Los Alamos National Laboratory and University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

Among them, the IHME model, often cited by the White House, projected 134,475 COVID-19 deaths by August 4, with a range of 95,092 to 242,890.

“These projections are considerably higher than previous estimates, representing the combined effects of death model updates and formally incorporating the effect of changes in mobility and social distancing policies into transmission dynamics,” said the IHME in a release.

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, indicating that growing contacts among people will promote transmission of the coronavirus, according to the IHME.

New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Michigan are projected to have the highest cumulative COVID-19 death tolls through August.

The updated modeling approach indicates that the United States appears to be in a “prolonged epidemic peak,” according to the IHME.

People walks along a trail at a park in San Mateo County, San Francisco Bay Area, the United States, May 4, 2020.  (Photo by Li Jianguo/Xinhua)

After weeks of shutdown measures, many U.S. states have begun to slowly open up.

“The re-opening of states, if done under safe and responsible conditions might work, but great concerns continue to be present if this is done prematurely and without careful individual compliance with social distancing or the proper use of face masks,” Kent Pinkerton, professor of pediatrics from the School of Medicine at the University of California, Davis, told Xinhua.

“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,” said IHME Director Dr. Christopher Murray.

“We expect that the epidemic in many states will now extend through the summer,” he said.

First responders wheel a man on a stretcher in the Brooklyn borough of New York, the United States, on May 8, 2020. (Photo by Michael Nagle/Xinhua)

As of Saturday afternoon, over 1.3 million people have been infected across the United States, with the death toll surpassing 78,600, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Stanley Perlman, professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Iowa, told Xinhua premature opening is “most likely” to lead to a spike in new COVID-19 infections.

While some areas are witnessing flattening of curve, a nationwide significant decline is yet to come, with the country stuck on a prolonged plateau.

Zhang Zuofeng, professor of epidemiology and associate dean for research with the school of public health at UCLA, told Xinhua it is worrying that the rate of new cases is increasing while at the same time some states are easing up.

“We’re one country. If we’re not moving in the same step, we’re going to have a problem,” he said.

Zhang is particularly concerned about Florida and Texas, where cases have been rising steadily and the potential for explosions seems high.

“Many states that reopened economies are still seeing rising COVID-19 cases and deaths. Reopening may lead to sharp increase in new cases and local outbreaks, which may cause significant rise of nationwide COVID-19 cases and deaths,” he said.

According to a recent projection from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, partially reopening would cause 45,000 additional deaths by June 30 relative to not reopening. Fully reopening would lead to an additional 233,000 deaths.

“Weighing health and economic issues are tough in a country that is so polarized,” Perlman told Xinhua.

Probably the most difficult challenge facing the United States and COVID-19 is to “practice patience,” Pinkerton noted.

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