Story at a glance
- As the number of coronavirus cases and deaths increase, predictive models are updating their projections.
- In many cases, estimates for the number of cases and resulting deaths are decreasing as more specific information becomes available.
- Some officials are suggesting even more recent numbers are undercounting the number of cases of COVID-19 in the United States.
“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics,” is the phrase popularized by Mark Twain and other writers. But just like telling your mom you brushed your teeth when you didn’t brush them today, but you did brush them yesterday, statistics can be true – within a certain context.
As the novel coronavirus outbreak began in Wuhan, China, public health officials and the public themselves turned to data modeling to help predict what the spread of COVID-19 would look like, where and how it would travel and how many people it would infect. Data models have mapped everything from how well people are social distancing to changes in travel patterns and even the peak date for coronavirus deaths in each state.
But as the virus travelled to different parts of the world and the United States, it operated differently within the context of their geography, infrastructure and populations. As more data is made available, the models have been adapted and some are showing up to tens of thousands of fewer deaths due to COVID-19 than previous estimates.
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This doesn’t mean the previous models were inaccurate, but that they were limited by the amount of data available at the time.
And hindsight is twenty-twenty. Dr. Christopher Murray, director of the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) in Seattle, told the Guardian they have better data for the likely outcomes of COVID-19 in Italy and Spain, where the epidemics have peaked, than in other countries. The IHME estimates the peak date for COVID-19 deaths in the United States will be April 12.
The reduction in estimates also suggests some preventative measures, including social distancing, are working as they were intended to and slowing — if not stopping entirely — the spread of the coronavirus. A revised forecast by the IHME on April 5 showed the need for hospital beds, ICU beds and ventilators needed to deal with the COVID-19 epidemic was less than previously estimated, which meant the U.S. had been successful in attempts to "flatten the curve."
In the days before the pandemic peaks in the U.S., any change can alter the course of the outbreak.
“Our estimates assume statewide social distancing measures are continuing in states where they have already been enacted, and for those states without such measures in place, it is assumed they will be in place within seven days,” Murray said in a release. “If social distancing measures are relaxed or not implemented, the US will see greater death tolls, the death peak will be later, the burden on hospitals will be much greater, and the economic costs will continue to grow.”
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