Researchers double US coronavirus death forecast as curbs eased

University of Washington experts say ‘rising mobility’ could lead to nearly 135,000 deaths by August.

US Jersey City
People visit the Liberty State Park as the state started to reopen parks. A new forecast for August has nearly doubled the death toll as a result of the easing of coronavirus curbs [Eduardo Munoz/Reuters]

A newly revised coronavirus mortality model predicts nearly 135,000 Americans will die from COVID-19 by early August, almost double previous projections, as physical-distancing measures for quelling the pandemic are increasingly relaxed, according to researchers.

The new forecast from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) reflects “rising mobility in most US states” with an easing of business closures and stay-at-home orders expected in 31 states by May 11, the institute said on Monday.

“We expect that the epidemic in many states will now extend through the summer,” IHME director, Dr Christopher Murray, said in a statement.

The projections reinforced warnings from public health experts that the clamour to lift restrictions on commerce and social activities to help a ravaged economy could lead to a huge loss of life.

The institute’s predictive coronavirus model, periodically revised to account for changing circumstances and scientific insights surrounding the pandemic, has become an influential data point often cited by the White House and public health authorities in gauging the crisis.

The IHME projections are presented as a statistical range of outcomes. The latest forecast predicts the cumulative number of US deaths from COVID-19 will run from as few as 95,092 to as many as 242,890 by August 4 – with 134,475 lives lost representing the most likely, middle ground.

By comparison, the previous revision issued on April 29 put the middle-case figure at 72,400 deaths, within a range of between 59,300 and 114,200 fatalities.

Internal forecasts predict surge

The upward spike reflects increasing human interactions as more states begin to ease physical-distancing requirements – the chief public health tool available to curb the spread of a virus which is highly contagious and for which there is no vaccine or cure yet.

The relaxation of distancing rules will more than offset any decline in transmissions that might come from warmer weather and stronger containment measures, such as more wide-scale testing and tracing the contacts of infected people so they too can be tested and isolated, Murray said.

The revised IHME projections coincided with the disclosure of an internal Trump administration forecast predicting a surge in COVID-19 cases killing 3,000 Americans a day by the end of May, up from a current daily toll that a Reuters tally places at around 2,000.

That projection, first reported by the New York Times and confirmed by a Reuters source, also forecast about 200,000 new coronavirus cases each day by the end of the month, up from the current rate of about 25,000 cases every 24 hours.

US California
California is among states that are gradually easing coronavirus restrictions [Ben Margot/AP Photo]

Asked about the confidential forecast, White House spokesman Judd Deere said: “This is not a White House document, nor has it been presented to the Coronavirus faskforce or gone through interagency vetting.”

President Donald Trump has given varying predictions for the number of people in the US expected to succumb to COVID-19. As recently as Friday, he said he hoped fewer than 100,000 Americans would die, and had talked last week of between 60,000 and 70,000 deaths.

But on Sunday night, the president acknowledged the death toll may be much higher.

“We’re going to lose anywhere from 75, 80 to 100,000 people. That’s a horrible thing,” he told Fox News.

States easing curbs

In New York, the state that accounts for about a third of all US infections, Governor Andrew Cuomo on Monday outlined plans to ease restrictions on a regional basis.

Without giving a specific timeframe, Cuomo told a daily briefing that construction, manufacturing and the wholesale supply chain would be allowed to start up under the first phase of a four-step return to normality. A second phase would permit insurance, retail, administrative support and real estate businesses to open again, followed by restaurants, food services, hotels and accommodation businesses, Cuomo said. In the final phase, arts, entertainment and recreation facilities and education would restart.

Cuomo suggested that rural parts of New York might be relaxed ahead of “higher-risk regions,” including New York City.

California Governor Gavin Newsom said on Monday he would ease the state’s stay-at-home orders by Thursday, expanding the number of retail businesses that can provide curbside services.

“This is an optimistic day, as we see a little bit of a ray of sunshine,” Newsom told a news conference.

Florida began a gradual restart of its economy on Monday. In the first phase, retail merchants and restaurants will open, with indoor patronage limited to 25 percent of capacity. Eateries have also been allowed to open outdoor seating with social distancing, and medical practices can resume elective surgeries and procedures.

In Ohio, Governor Mike DeWine was allowing construction and manufacturing to reopen on Monday, and letting office workers return.

Source: Reuters