Story at a glance

  • A research group developed a model that projects that if the situation stays the same in the U.S., there could be more than 400,000 deaths from the coronavirus by early 2021.
  • The model makes projections for three different scenarios.
  • Models and projections are not predictions; they’re only best estimates based on past data.

The U.S. has been breaking daily coronavirus case records regularly in November, with the current number of cases at more than 11 million and the number of deaths nearing 250,000, according to the New York Times. By one research group’s calculations, the number of deaths in the U.S. could surpass 400,000 by March 2021.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation publishes projections of COVID-19 deaths, infections, testing, hospital resource use, mask use and social distancing. You can view the charts for the global situation or broken down to country or even further by region within a country.

In the U.S., if restrictions are eased, the model projects deaths to reach more than 586,000 by March 1, 2021. If things stay the same, deaths would be at nearly 439,000 over the same time period. Lastly, if mask mandates were put into effect, they estimate there would be about 370,000 deaths due to COVID-19. The business-as-usual and mask mandate scenarios also include an assumption that if daily deaths reach 8 per million people then restrictions like closing nonessential businesses would be reinstated for six weeks.


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The researchers behind these projections update their model regularly, incorporating data collected by other groups. They also estimate that stress on hospitals will peak in December and January, according to a briefing. The scenarios are based on observations of mask wearing and physical distancing. The researchers say that declining vigilance in these behaviors may account for recent increases in coronavirus cases, in addition to seasonality.

A word of caution

Models and projections are a tricky business. They are meant to give a sense for what the future trends may be. But they are only estimates and may not actually be very good at projecting far into the future. That’s why it’s good that the models keep getting updated with new data as it becomes available.


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The current situation

Cases are rising in many places in the U.S., and breaking records in the Midwest. There are many ways to measure the pandemic such as per capita, number of new cases, by county, by zip code, percent or number of hospital beds filled and ratio of positive test results.

 

In this chart, researchers at the COVID Tracking Project are showing the ratios of how many people test positive for COVID-19 in the past week. The number for the state represents the other half of the ratio 1:X number of people. For example, South Dakota’s number on the chart is 92. This means that 1 in 92 people have tested positive for the coronavirus in the last week. This is one of the highest positivity rates in the country at the moment.

There’s not one ultimate metric that is the best way to understand the depth of the pandemic. It’s likely that we’ll have to continue to interpret the information and data available for some time to come. Although we cannot individually control whether the projections come true or not, we can control how we take responsibility for COVID safety in our own lives.

For up-to-date information about COVID-19, check the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. For updated global case counts, check this page maintained by Johns Hopkins University or the COVID Tracking Project.

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Published on Nov 17, 2020