America's COVID Deaths May Be Equivalent to a 9/11 Every Day by Christmas

With COVID infections surging across the U.S. and Thanksgiving celebrations expected to have given the coronavirus more opportunities to spread, experts fear the country will soon experience a record number of deaths from the disease—something equivalent to the 2,977 people killed on 9/11 per day—by Christmas.

In the past week alone, 10,288 people died of COVID in the U.S., with the current death toll of 267,302, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control website that was updated Tuesday. On average in the past week, 1,469 people died of COVID each day.

That is below the record numbers reached in the spring, when the virus ravaged the Northeast and the U.S. became the country with the highest number of deaths (a position that it retains). By the end of April, COVID was killing more than 2,000 Americans each day.

But after the country smashed records for new cases and hospitalizations in November and some people dismissed CDC advice to celebrate Thanksgiving with people outside their households, experts told Newsweek they fear the spring's highs for fatalities will soon be surpassed.

They highlighted that COVID deaths lag behind diagnoses by up to four weeks. The fact a record 98,961 people were hospitalized with COVID on Tuesday, according to the COVID Tracking Project, does not bode well.

And those closely watching the data should not be lulled into a false sense of security by a sudden drop in deaths in the days following Thanksgiving, after they rose steadily since around mid-October, as shown in the tweet by the COVID Tracking Project below.

As the number of current hospitalizations approaches 100k people, daily deaths have begun to rebound, after a post-holiday drop. We saw the same pattern after Labor Day.

— The COVID Tracking Project (@COVID19Tracking) December 2, 2020

Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association told Newsweek that routine reporting of deaths would have been delayed over the holiday weekend. Similarly to what was seen following Labor Day, recorded fatalities shot back up in the following days.

A "grim" outlook

The CDC, which pools data from a number of models to create what is known as an ensemble forecast, sets its mid-range estimate for COVID deaths per day by December 19 at around 2,200, and its higher range at just over 3,000.

Jennifer Dowd, associate professor of demography and population health at the University of Oxford, told Newsweek she believes the higher-end estimates are more realistic as the models do not explicitly incorporate people meeting during Thanksgiving. "The outlook is grim," she said.

"The virus thrives on precisely the type of social contact that Thanksgiving is about—multiple households coming together, eating and talking indoors for long durations without masks," she said.

"The virus travels when people travel, so Thanksgiving can also bring the virus from higher prevalence areas to lower prevalence areas and seed new surges."

Jagpreet Chhatwal, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School who works on The COVID-19 Simulator forecasting project used for the CDC ensemble, sees a similar path. He told Newsweek: "Unfortunately, we can very likely hit 3,000 deaths per day by the end of the year if we continue at the current trajectory... it's just a matter of weeks that deaths per day will cross the previous peak seen in April."

Peter Drobac, a physician and specialist in infectious diseases and public health at the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, U.K. compared the devastation to that of the September 11 attacks, when 2,977 were killed. "We might be experiencing 9/11 a day by Christmas," he told Newsweek.

Lauren Ancel Meyers, professor at the University of Texas at Austin (UT) and director of the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, also drawn on by the CDC, told Newsweek her team are projecting somewhere between 1,500 to over 3,000 people will die from COVID-19 each day, but said the number could be "even higher" if Thanksgiving causes a spike in transmissions.

Jeffrey Shaman, professor in environmental health sciences who is also working on a COVID model used by the CDC, told Newsweek his team are not projecting 3,000 deaths per day, "but it is not outside the realm of possibility."

Dowd gave the caveat that there are a few countervailing forces that make it hard to predict death rates, including the larger numbers of young people, who are less likely to die of COVID, catching the coronavirus compared to the start of the pandemic.

"But since our currently hospitalized numbers are so high, this suggests that the surge in infections has spilled over into more vulnerable groups as well," she said. "There is no evidence that COVID-19 itself has gotten less deadly, and there are no truly breakthrough treatments although we have gotten better at treating critical cases. So unless we are hospitalizing people with much less severe disease than in the spring, this hospitalization surge will lead to continued surge in deaths lagged by a few weeks."

Asked whether upcoming celebrations like Christmas will worsen the situation if people celebrate indoors, the experts said yes. But by following public health measures, such as wearing masks when around others, washing hands frequently, and keeping 6 feet away from those outside one's household, they said it is possible to prevent more deaths.

"Christmas is poised to create similar dilemmas and potential family superspreading events [to Thanksgiving]," said Dowd. "The virus is cruel in thriving on situations we crave—togetherness with our loved ones. But this is the time to invest in future holidays, create new traditions, and take heart in the real promise of the vaccine cavalry on the horizon.

"We can save New Years if we reduce physical contact and ensure that current infections are a dead end for the virus," Dowd said.

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A stock image shows a health care worker holding a patient's hand. Experts fear COVID death rates will increase in the coming weeks.