Startling new COVID-19 death projections highlight challenges of reopening
New internal projections from the Trump administration suggest U.S. deaths will grow on a daily basis to 3,000 by the beginning of June, weeks after states have begun reopening their economies.
The startling figures from models produced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) come as more and more states take steps to remove social distancing measures meant to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Those measures have shuttered the economy and raised pressure at the White House to turn the page on lockdowns that some in the administration view as a threat to President Trump’s reelection.
But lifting the measures could lead to more cases and will raise fears about a second wave from the virus.
The CDC’s latest model, first reported by The New York Times, also suggests the nation faces weeks of grim figures and a long battle from a virus that already has killed nearly 70,000 Americans in a matter of months.
“We’re not even talking about a second wave here, we’re talking about a first wave that never goes away and gets worse,” said one former Health and Human Services (HHS) official.
The figures estimated the U.S. would see 3,000 deaths per day and 200,000 new cases per day by June 1. Experts and those familiar with the documents said the increases could be attributed to a spread of disease that will come with reopening the economy and partly to an expected expansion of testing, leading to more confirmed cases.
Public health experts have stressed that an increase in cases and deaths related to the coronavirus are a reality that comes with reopening parts of the economy. Still, the potential for 200,000 new cases per day would far exceed the current per day totals, which have hovered between 20,000 and 30,000.
The White House sought to throw cold water on the CDC model, with a spokesman saying it had not gone through interagency vetting or been presented to the coronavirus task force led by Vice President Pence.
“This data is not reflective of any of the modeling done by the task force or data that the task force has analyzed,” deputy press secretary Judd Deere said in a statement.
One person familiar with the process said the projections were discussed on an interagency call, but that the White House coronavirus task force may not have been shown the findings.
Scott Gottlieb, the former administrator of the Food and Drug Administrator (FDA), tweeted that the model appeared to be commissioned from an independent academic group but that it was unclear whether it accounted for current mitigation levels, relaxed restrictions or no restrictions.
The CDC did not respond to an inquiry about its projections.
The uncertainty around the CDC projections reflected how hazy modeling and unclear messaging from the White House has made it difficult for Americans to know what to expect in the weeks to come as some states hope to return to a semblance of normal.
Trump on Sunday revised his personal prediction for the domestic death toll, saying the U.S. could lose up to 100,000 people from the coronavirus after previously suggesting it would be closer to 60,000.
Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House coronavirus response, said on “Fox News Sunday” that the projections she’s been using “have always been between 100,000 and 240,000 American lives lost, and that’s with full mitigation and us learning from each other of how to social distance.”
The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, an influential model cited by government officials, recalibrated its projections on Monday afternoon to account for increasing mobility as restrictions are lifted. The model now projects nearly 135,000 deaths through the beginning of August, nearly double what it had been estimating as of Monday morning.
“Increases in testing and contact tracing, along with warming seasonal temperatures – factors that could help slow transmission – do not offset rising mobility, thereby fueling a significant increase in projected deaths,” the institute said.
Trump has been adamant about the need for businesses to reopen. He has repeated the mantra that the “cure cannot be worse than the problem” and sided with protesters gathering at state capitols in Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia to oppose stay-at-home orders.
“Certain states are going to have to take a little more time in getting open, and they’re doing that,” Trump said Sunday night in a Fox News town hall. “Some states, I think, frankly, aren’t going fast enough.”
Most states have outlined plans in recent days to loosen restrictions that have forced businesses to shutter, employees to remain at home and unemployment to skyrocket nationwide.
More than two dozen states have already started allowing salons, restaurants and office spaces to reopen in a limited capacity, with others set to do the same in the coming weeks. Even holdouts like Virginia and California on Monday detailed their plans to reopen parts of the state over the next two weeks.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R), who has been among the most aggressive governors in reopening his state, said Monday that he would encourage his residents “to wear your mask at all times when possible and just continue to wash your hands and just be careful on what you’re doing.
“These things are working and we’ve got to continue to do that until we’ve got a cure or some medication,” Kemp said during an event organized by conservative groups supportive of reopening the economy.
But health experts have been adamant that coronavirus infections will inevitably surge as people begin mingling again. There are more than 1.1 million confirmed cases in the U.S., and more than 68,000 have died from the virus.
“Many of the states that are opening up haven’t even followed the federal guidelines. They haven’t seen a sustained drop in cases,” said Lawrence Gostin, a public health law professor at Georgetown University.
Without increased testing, Gostin predicted that states loosening their restrictions may not see the consequences for a couple weeks until people who are infected start showing up in emergency rooms.
“We shouldn’t think of it as an on-off switch, we should think of it as incremental and episodic,” Gostin said. “I think the American public should be prepared for ongoing cycles of social distancing and ongoing disease and deaths through this entire calendar year.”
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